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Mexico Seizes Record Amount of Methamphetamine

The New York Times, Feb.9, 2012

MEXICO CITY — Mexican authorities announced their largest methamphetamine seizure ever late Wednesday: 15 tons, found in pure powder form at a ranch outside Guadalajara. It was about 13 million doses worth $4 billion — more than double the size of all meth seizures at the Mexican border in 2011.

But while the authorities proudly showed off the seizure to local reporters, the sheer size of the find set off alarm among experts and officials from the United States and the United Nations. It was a sign, they said, of just how organized, efficient at manufacturing and brazen Mexico’s traffickers had become even after expanded efforts to dismantle their industry.

“The big thing it shows is the sheer capacity that these superlabs have in Mexico,” said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “When we see one lab with the capability to produce such a mass tonnage of meth, it begs a question: What else is out there?”

Methamphetamine is difficult to produce in large quantities. Unlike marijuana, which can be grown almost anywhere, meth requires international connections to suppliers of precursor chemicals, which are tightly regulated in the United States and Mexico, as well as manufacturers with a degree of chemistry expertise.

The Sinaloa cartel is believed to be Mexico’s main producer, partly because it has a reputation for being the world’s most multinational and sophisticated cartel. And some experts say that the seizure, along with increased seizures of meth, cocaine and marijuana at the Mexican border, suggests that Sinaloa is producing more than ever before, despite five years of increased Mexican and American efforts to defeat the Mexican cartels.

“Sinaloa has been hit hard in the past four to six months, but they are clearly operating at a volume they were not able to do 5 or 10 years ago,” said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. With methamphetamine, he added: “There is really not much competition. They are probably the only ones with the organizational and logistical capacity to move this kind of product.”

United Nations figures suggest that the supply of meth in the United States has been growing, with seizures at the Mexican border increasing 87 percent in 2011. At the same time, demand in the United States has been falling. According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of Americans 12 and older who said they had used methamphetamine in the past 12 months declined 46 percent from 2002 to 2010, to 954,000 from an estimated 1.8 million.

But just as Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers are increasingly focused on the market in Europe, experts said that the meth not sent to the United States might be heading to other parts of the world. Sinaloa’s tentacles have been found on nearly every continent.

Over all, experts said, meth appears to be providing an increasingly important revenue stream for the cartel, and the seizure this week is likely to have little long-term impact.

“It’s important to keep the seizure in perspective,” said Eric Olson, a security expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It’s huge. Eye-popping. But seizures, even huge ones, don’t generally change the demand for the drug in the long run. If a seizure of this magnitude raises the street price, consumption may go down for a time, but it is only a matter of time until the market adjusts and the supply comes back up.”