Meth Production Moves to Mexico

Methamphetamine remains one of the most addictive drugs on U.S. streets. Successful law enforcement efforts have cut meth production in the United States, but that only means that most of the production has shifted to Mexican drug cartels.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NPR is looking this week at illegal drugs in America. One of the most addictive is methamphetamine. Meth is also unique. It's a synthetic drug. It's cheap. And historically it's been easy to get the chemicals needed to make it.

In recent years, successful enforcement has dramatically cut meth production in the U.S. And according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, that has sent the lion's share of production south of the border.

NPR's Carrie Kahn starts out our two-part report on meth.

CARRIE KAHN: Bob Pennal has been a cop in California for nearly three decades. He's watched the meth trade switch hands from local biker gangs to Mexican drug cartels. Now he heads the meth taskforce in Fresno, which in the 1990s was home to the country's biggest meth producers.

Mr. BOB PENNAL (Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force): We used to average about one superlab a month back in those days. And now we turn around and we might do one superlab every other month.

KAHN: A superlab is a clandestine laboratory capable of making 10 pounds of meth in a single cook. On the street that's enough meth for more than 150,000 hits.

On a windy 110-acre vineyard on the west side of town, Pennal walks around a small farmhouse surrounded by bright yellow crime tape. This is the taskforce's latest superlab seizure. There's scarce law enforcement out here and Pennal says two farm hands rented the house and would cook meth in the middle of the night.

Mr. PENNAL: Two to four nights a month they come here, and that's an extra $6,000 to $12,000 cash a month. And I'll tell you what, you know, I mean, I could definitely as just as a measly little state employee, you know, appreciate this - put that down.

(Soundbite mic being pushed)

KAHN: Pennal pushes my mic away and takes off down the farm's only road where a car is fast approaching. There may be fewer meth labs in the rural reaches of Fresno these days but tensions still run high. As it turns out, the car belongs to the vineyard's owner, Trent Hammond(ph), wondering who's wandering around the crime scene. He says he still can't believe his renters were running a lab.

Mr. TRENT HAMMOND: I'd never smelled anything, never noticed anything.

KAHN: DEA officials credit the demise of California's superlabs to a series of successful trafficking crackdowns. And more importantly, a tough new national law regulating the sale of cold medicines, especially those containing pseudoephedrine, a crucial chemical needed to make meth.

Special Agent DAN SIMMONS (Drug Enforcement Agency): The bulk of the methamphetamine that's seized in the U.S. today is manufactured in Mexico.

KAHN: Dan Simmons, DEA special agent in San Diego, says 80 percent of meth on U.S. streets now comes from Mexico, where pseudoephedrine is abundant.

Special Agent SIMMONS: Obviously, they don't have as much difficulty as we do procuring it.

KAHN: According to the U.S. State Department, Mexico is now the world's second largest importer of pseudo. As recently as 2004, Mexico's legal pseudoephedrine imports topped 200 tons, nearly three times the amount Mexicans need to control their colds each year. Add to that the pseudoephedrine smuggled into the country, like last year's seizure of 5.1 million tablets hidden in a shipment of ceiling fans from China, and the country is awash in chemicals.

Last year, police in the central Mexican state of Jalisco raided the largest laboratory ever discovered in the Americas. Officials say the custom-made pressure cookers produced up to 400 pounds of meth a day. But Oscar Rocha, senior adviser to Mexico's attorney general, says pseudoephedrine imports have been drastically reduced and closely regulated.

Once in the country, certified importers must now take extra security safeguards.

Mr. OSCAR ROCHA (Senior Adviser to Mexican Attorney General): Moving the pseudoephedrine from the customs facility to their lab has to be done in an armored vehicle and with a police escort. We are, in fact, treating pseudoephedrine as if it were a weapons of mass destruction material.

KAHN: But traffickers have found ways around the new regulation.

(Soundbite of switches being flipped)

KAHN: A federal police officer switches on the lights in a recently seized pharmaceutical lab located in an industrial park about one hour outside of Mexico City. Immense metal distillers line the walls of the warehouse.

Carlos Vasquez(ph) of the attorney general's office says traffickers were probably going to use the lab as a front organization to import pseudoephedrine.

They made other types of medicines here?

Mr. CARLOS VASQUEZ (Mexican Attorney General's Office): (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: He says yes, the company was licensed to manufacture legal drugs but never had the chance to. Federal authorities learned of the lab during a raid of a Mexico City mansion. Stuffed in the walls and closets, officials found a record $207 million - proceeds of an elaborate Mexican-Chinese pseudoephedrine smuggling ring.

But despite the recent seizures, senior adviser Oscar Rocha disputes claims that 80 percent of meth in the U.S. is being manufactured in his country.

Mr. ROCHA: The drug market is a very difficult market to gauge. We are assuming that there is a production of methamphetamine in Mexico. We don't know if it is a little, big, medium problem.

KAHN: In the Mexican border city of Tijuana, meth is a big problem.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: A drug addict steps up to a podium in a crammed room at a local rehab center. Before a Mexican church group took over the building, it was a well-known neighborhood drug house. Recovering addict Norma Hernandez(ph) shows off a small room now filled with bunk beds.

So here in this room they use to cook crystal methamphetamine.

Ms. NORMA HERNANDEZ: Yes. They used to cook it. They used to use it, and they used to sell it.

KAHN: And you used to buy it here?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Ah, embarrassing.

KAHN: Hernandez has been clean for four years now. But meth labs still flourish in the city and the drug is increasingly being smuggled across the border. That's according to Adel Fizano, who oversees San Diego's customs office. She said meth seizures jumped more than 40 percent over the previous year. Fizano shows off pictures of the many ingenious ways traffickers try to smuggle in meth.

Ms. ADEL FIZANO (Director of Field Operations, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, San Diego.): This is another tequila bottle.

KAHN: That's an awfully big tequila bottle.

Ms. FIZANO: Yes.

KAHN: And how much liquid methamphetamine did it have?

Ms. FIZANO: Five kilograms or a little over 10 pounds of liquid meth in that bottle.

KAHN: And officials say the meth that is getting across the border is being stretched further.

Back at the Fresno Meth Task Force, agent Mike Richardson watches surveillance tapes from a local feed store.

Mr. MIKE RICHARDSON (Agent, Fresno Meth Task Force): You see he's getting his wallet out, he's probably slipping it back in. He's signing the slip.

KAHN: Richardson says the man is buying large quantities of a white powdery feed supplement frequently used to cut meth.

Mr. RICHARDSON: If he had a pound, it just doubles it.

KAHN: Commander of the taskforce Robert Pennal says law enforcement is definitely making a dent in local meth production.

Mr. PENNAL: But yet the consumers were still here. There's still consumption. So as long as there's consumption, they're going to find a way.

KAHN: Pennal says he's been at this too long to underestimate the ingenuity of the traffickers or the desperation of methamphetamine users.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, meth from Mexico pours into states where small makeshift meth labs once flourished.

All this week a series on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED examines America's nearly four-decade-long war on drugs. A timeline of that war and voices from the addicts, dealers, and law enforcement officials swept up in the battle at npr.org.

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