UNODC: Meth Production Moving Out of Mexico?

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Mexico’s crackdown on methaphetamine is pushing the industry into other Central and South American countries, according to a new report by the United Nations. Could Mexico lose its place as the region’s top meth producer?

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) are now the second-most widely consumed drug in the world, after marijuana. The biggest producer of ATS in Latin America is Mexico, the supplier of up to 80 percent of the U.S.’s methaphetamine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Among the substances identified by the UNODC, methaphetamine is the most highly addictive and is by far the greatest risk to public health and security. It is also the substance that drug traffickers will mostly likely begin producing in other vulnerable countries across the region, if crackdowns against the drug continue in North America, according to a recent UNODC report (pdf).

Both Mexico and the U.S. have taken moves to restrict meth production. Most legislation is aimed at controlling the sales of pseudophedrine and ephedrine, the main precursor chemicals used to make the drug. In 2005, U.S. Congress passed a law that controlled sales of nasal decongestants and cold medicine like Sudafed, which use pseudophedrine as a key ingredient. Many states began tracking sales and moved cold medicines behind the counter, leading to a drop in local production.

Instead, the small-scale, clandestine meth kitchen in the rural U.S. was edged out by larger, industrial-style factories in Mexico. More purer and potent forms of meth began flooding the northern market as Mexican traffickers stepped in to feed the demand. Criminal groups like the Familia Michoacana and the Sinaloa Cartel all made inroads into the business, once primarily managed by the now-defunct Colima Cartel. One leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Ignacio Coronel Villareal, became known as the “king of ice” thanks to his domination of the trade.

In 2008, Mexico banned imports of pseudophedrine and ephedine. Nevertheless, meth production continued and even increased between 2008 and 2009, according to the UNODC. So far in 2011, authorities have seized a record amount of meth along the U.S.-Mexico border. During the first half of the year, Mexican security forces dismantled 103 clandestine labs, a 25 percent increase from the same period last year.

The rise in seizures of meth and precursor chemicals are, in part, an indication of Mexico’s increased efforts to combat the trade. But, as the UNODC points out, this is already beginning to have several adverse side-effects. Meth labs are now appearing in South America, an area where previously there was no history of production. In 2009, methaphetamine laboratories were found in Brazil and Nicaragua, both firsts for the region.

Seizures of precursor chemicals in Central and South America are also up, according to the UNODC. Excluding Mexico, the region saw nearly 12 tons of ephedrine confiscated in 2009. This is a 12-fold increase from 2005. Seizures of pseudophedrine are also on the rise. El Salvador reportedly confiscated 42 tons of the precursor chemical during the last half of 2009 and the first half of 2010. Large-scale seizures were also reported in countries like Guatemala, Belize and the Dominican Republic.

However, Latin America will likely only see an increase in methaphetamine production if local demand for the drug grows. This is unlikely, since the cheap, addictive drug of choice is the readily available by-product of cocaine production — known as “basuco” in Colombia, “merla” in Brazil and “paco” in Argentina. And with smuggling and production networks already so well established in Mexico, it’s doubtful that other countries will attempt to compete and become major exporters of meth to the U.S. Mexico, already has the natural advantage, thanks to its proximity to the U.S. and its trade links with Asia, the origin of many precursor chemicals needed for production.

In the near future, Mexico is likely to remain the region’s top producer of meth, even with tighter controls against precursor chemicals. There are already signs that traffickers are circumventing the ban on pseudophedrine and ephedine. Traffickers are changing their approach, shifting away from bulk, raw materials to using legal pharmeceuticals containing the necessary ingredients. And by its very nature, the production of synthetic drugs like meth is highly flexible. Substitute chemicals for ephedrine are increasingly being found in Mexican meth labs. This is one indication that traffickers are now using “masked” precursors — legal chemicals which can be processed into other substances needed to make meth.

As the UNODC points out, the appearance in meth labs in several Latin American countries and the increased seizure of precursor chemicals across the region is certainly a cause for a trend. But it hardly heralds a trend in meth production outside of Mexico.

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