Precursor Chemical Trade Becoming More Innovative: Report

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Latin American criminal organizations are relying on increasingly innovative ways to get the chemicals needed for drug production as a result of successful crack downs on the precursor chemical trade, according to a new US State Department report.

According to this year’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, criminal groups are quickly developing new drug production methods using easily obtainable chemicals as a replacement for substances that face greater controls, as well as seeking out new sources. 

The report states that law enforcement in the region has had significant success in monitoring the international trafficking of chemicals such as potassium permanganate — the key precursor in turning cocaine base into powder. However, as a result, many traffickers purchase precursors from chemical traffickers who divert them from the legal domestic market, often replacing them with similar but unrestricted substances, the report notes.

Tightened restrictions have also prompted criminal groups to seek out replacements for other substances for manufacturing cocaine. Since 2011, traffickers in Bolivia have been replacing controlled substances such as sulfuric acid, kerosene, gasoline, diesel oil, and limestone with unregulated alternatives such as isopropyl alcohol, liquid ethyl acetate, sodium bisulphate, and cement.

Controls on precursor chemicals have also affected production of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine. The report highlights how tightened control over methamphetamine precursors at first saw an increase in related seizures and arrests, but this dropped off in 2012. Authorities believe this is because traffickers are now using non-restricted precursor chemicals and alternative production methods.

New controls have had an especially significant impact in Mexico, which banned the use and trade of pseudoephedrine, a precursor chemical for methamphetamine, in 2008. Since then, criminal groups have increasingly been using an alternative manufacturing process called the Phenyl-2-propanone (P2P) method, which does not require pseudoephedrine. Initially, the final product resulted in a much less potent form of methamphetamine, but manufacturers have been steadily improving their new production process since making the switch.

The report identifies Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and the United States as the main exporters of precursor chemicals in the Americas, although it highlights how this is influenced by economic and geographical factors rather than a failure of law enforcement.

InSight Crime Analysis

The findings in the State Department’s report highlight the difficulties in restricting a trade that is at once legal and illegal. It details numerous successes in limiting the trafficking of precursor chemicals in what were once the principal markets. However, these successes appear to have had little impact on criminal organizations, whose capacity to innovate and seek out new sources keeps them a step ahead. This is unlikely to change, despite increased law enforcement efforts, as synthetic drug production methods become increasingly varied.

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