For the second consecutive year, seizures of methamphetamine in the Laredo customs district — the country’s busiest land port — climbed significantly, an indication that drug cartels continue to bank on sales of the drug in the U.S. despite vigilant enforcement efforts on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.
And with the cartels’ ability to produce methamphetamine year-round in Mexico, drug enforcement officials say shipments of the narcotic are unlikely to ebb even if they ratchet up targeted efforts against such shipments.
Customs and Border Protection agents working the Laredo district, which extends from Del Rio to Brownsville, seized more than a ton of the addictive narcotic, about 2,200 pounds, in fiscal year 2012, according to year-end statistics released this month. The amount represents a 116 percent increase over fiscal year 2011's total, which was a 34 percent jump compared with 2010's seizure total.
The figures are part of an overall trend on the Texas-Mexico border in which — despite the Mexican government’s efforts to curb organized-crime activity there since 2006 — drugs continue to flow northward as demand in the U.S. continues unabated. CBP officers in Texas, who monitor the flow of goods and people at Texas ports, seized a total of 1.7 million pounds in narcotics last fiscal year, more than agents in Arizona, New Mexico and California combined. The 2011 total for Texas was about 1.5 million pounds.
Howard Campbell, an author and anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso whose specialties include drug trafficking and border culture, said increased production of methamphetamine in Mexico is a natural byproduct of enforcement efforts here and in Mexico. As authorities continue their attempts to curb violence, cartels will look to branch out and expand their enterprises, he said.
“Methamphetamine is extremely valuable, and it’s easy to manufacture and it’s cheap to manufacture,” said Campbell, the author of Drug War Zone, a collection of dispatches from the Texas-Mexico border. “And it’s worth a lot. To some extent, I just think [increased production] is due to the creativity of drug cartels and organized crime in Mexico.”
Meth production by the cartels appears primarily confined to three Pacific states. In November, the Mexican publication Milenio reported that more than 85 percent of that country’s methamphetamine labs seized the last 12 years by law enforcement were found in Michoacán, Sinaloa and Jalisco. Despite the states’ proximity to Chihuahua, which borders El Paso and other large swaths of West Texas, the majority of the smuggling appears to be occurring east of that point, with the Interstate 35 corridor a popular route.
CBP agents in the El Paso sector, which covers the border city and extends into New Mexico, seized only 87 pounds of methamphetamine in fiscal 2012.
Ports of entry in California and South Texas are the most commonly used by Mexican traffickers looking to move methamphetamine north, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Campbell said there are risks associated with transporting the drug through Mexico, but cartels see it as an easier option than moving large shipments of other narcotics.
“It’s a lower-risk strategy than bringing cocaine up from South America and risking getting to the border and bringing it across,” he said.
Despite the continued use of Texas as a transit point for methamphetamine, law enforcement on the border said the amount of product staying there is minimal.
“I don’t think the locals are capturing a lot of it here. We do see it probably a little bit more than we’ve seen in recent years, but only because it’s readily available,” said investigator Joe Baeza, a spokesman with the Laredo Police Department.
"I can’t tell you specifically which [cartel] it is. It’s a little bit of everybody I think because the ingredients are readily available," he added. "But we haven’t seized cache loads of methamphetamine, we haven’t seen any methamphetamine labs here.”
Methamphetamine can also be produced year-round, Baeza added, and does not depend on rainfall or growing seasons like marijuana or opium harvesting do. The ability to produce methamphetamine all year and the fact that Mexicans have become adept at producing it with domestic chemicals make the drug likely to maintain a significant presence in Texas and the rest of the nation.
Even though large shipments of the narcotic pass through the state, three of Texas’ Drug Enforcement Administration field offices include the drug on its list of top illegal narcotics threats, accounting for availability, use and potency. The Houston and Dallas field offices list methamphetamine as the third-highest threat, and El Paso lists it as its fourth-highest threat. A main reason is that since 2007, the price of methamphetamine has dropped by about 70 percent while its purity has increased by 127 percent, according to a 2012 study by the University of Texas Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network.