Seizures of methamphetamine at the Laredo customs district — the nation’s largest inland port — are on pace this fiscal year to surpass last year’s total by about 60 percent, reaching an expected total of about 1,650 pounds.
The statistic supports the theory that Mexican cartels are increasingly supplying the heavily addictive narcotic in the U.S., replacing domestic meth labs that were prevalent in rural areas only a few years ago. And analysts say that the ease with which meth can be produced in Mexico could help spark major changes in the bloody turf war between drug cartels.
Program directors in Laredo’s treatment centers have said the heavily addictive narcotic doesn’t appear to be staying in the area, as meth addicts aren’t filing in for treatment in greater numbers.
But researchers caution that demand is increasing away from the border and that Mexican gangs are becoming experts at cooking a cheap and highly potent version of the drug.
“The Mexicans have moved to an old recipe that existed in the ’70s and ’80s that is called P2P,” said Jane C. Maxwell, a senior research scientist at the Addiction Research Institute at the Center for Social Work Research at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It uses precursors that have been banned in the U.S. since the 1980s, but the Mexicans have taken up making it,” Maxwell said of ingredients — including a substance called propanone — used to make the drug. "They are making it in mass quantities, and they are damn good chemists.”
The old recipe became popular again after Mexico banned the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the common ingredients that had been used to make the narcotic. But Mexicans have become increasingly adept at using the old recipe for the drug, which Maxwell likened to a weed in a garden that won’t go away.
In the second quarter of 2010, only 50 percent of Drug Enforcement Administration lab samples of seizures were from the P2P process. But that increased to 85 percent during the third quarter of 2011.
The prevalence of meth production in Mexico was driven home this month when authorities reportedly seized 15 tons of meth on the outskirts of the city of Guadalajara, a known stronghold of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
“This is a cyclical drug. If you pass a precursor bill it goes down, and then it comes back up again,” Maxwell said. “The lesson on this is that we can’t congratulate ourselves for doing away with pseudoephedrine. People keep looking for other recipes.”
The number of underground Texas labs that have been broken up has dipped considerably since 1999, when 1,773 were eliminated, according to the National Clandestine Laboratory Database. That was down to 112 in 2008, 10 in 2009 and 26 in 2010.
In 1995 only 3 percent of the patients admitted into treatment programs in Texas funded by the Department of State Health Services were because of meth addictions. That increased to 11 percent in 2007. It dipped to 8 percent in 2009 and then inched up to 9 percent in 2010, when about 6,000 patients were admitted for treatment. The drug has remained popular among Anglos; 87 percent of people admitted for treatment in 2010 were white, compared with 9 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black.
While the amount of meth produced, shipped and used pales in comparison with the produced amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin — the leading cash generators for Mexican cartels — the street value of methamphetamine proves it has potential to continue being a significant revenue source for criminal groups. In 2011 a pound of meth was valued at $11,000 to $15,000 in Brownsville and $20,000 to $25,000 in San Antonio.
Because of that economic potential — and because it can be produced domestically and year-round — analysts are positing that meth could become responsible for a turning point in the wars between Mexican cartels.
The cocaine shipped through Mexico for sale in Texas and the rest of the U.S. is produced and controlled by Colombians, leading Mexicans to begrudgingly find themselves as little more than middlemen in the process, according to a report by Stratfor, a global intelligence outfit. This allows South American cocaine producers to play Mexican cartels off one another to strengthen their own positions, Stratfor analyst Ben West wrote in a Feb. 16 report.
“For Mexican drug traffickers, competition is bad for the bottom line, since it allows other actors to exploit each side to get a larger share of the market,” West wrote. “Essentially, everyone else in the cocaine market benefits by keeping the traffickers split.”
And although marijuana can be produced locally and remains one of the largest moneymakers for cartels, its production relies on several factors, including region and climate, that meth production doesn’t.
This has led to an increase in mass production of meth. Along with the Guadalajara discovery, seizures of meth ingredients in Mexico in large scale increased from 400 tons in 2010 to 1,600 tons last year.
“In other words we are seeing evidence that methamphetamine production has increased several orders of magnitude and is fast becoming an organized process,” West said.
For now, cocaine, marijuana and — to a lesser extent — heroin will continue to be the products of choice for cartels, said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
“I would think it would take a lot to shift that in terms of priority, in terms of revenue,” Olson said, though he added that demand for meth in the U.S. is increasing.
Olson said he didn’t expect cartels to abandon pot, cocaine or heroin smuggling, but instead use the increased meth demand to pad their coffers. The advantage would probably go to the group with the most manpower and resources, he said, citing a recent meeting with a Mexican intelligence official.
“He was of the opinion that it’s really the Sinaloa cartel that is in a position to take advantage of the growing demand,” Olson said. “The Zetas will try to because they rarely miss an opportunity. But he seemed to think it was more the Sinaloa cartel that was in a position to take advantage of it.”
The most recent estimates by the RAND Corporation indicate that Mexican traffickers make $30 billion annually in export revenues from cocaine, $10 billion each from Mexican and Colombian heroin, and $5 billion from meth.
If the trend changes, however, West says it could mean a shift in Mexico’s violent landscape.
“Once a group comes out on top it will have far more resources to expel or absorb rival [criminal organizations],” he wrote. “This process may not sound ideal, but methamphetamine could pick the winner in the drug war.”
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.