RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Police in Mexico say they've arrested one of that country's largest producers of methamphetamine. In the raid, police also claim to have seized tons of the drug with a street value of billions of dollars. The suspect allegedly oversaw the making of methamphetamine for the powerful Sinaloan cartel. The arrest comes as Mexican drug gangs are moving aggressively to try to dominate methamphetamine markets, not just in the U.S., but throughout Latin America and Asia.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: This week, Mexican Federal Police, some of them covered head to toe in white hazardous materials suits, paraded Jaime Herrera Herrera in front of the media in handcuffs. Officials here say Herrera was the methamphetamine mastermind for Mexico's most wanted man Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The head of the anti-narcotics division of Mexico's federal police, Ramon Eduardo Pequeno, says Herrera trafficked tons of methamphetamines into Southern California between 2008 and 2009 alone.
The Mexican drug cartels started out smuggling marijuana. They then expanded into cocaine. Now, they're making a major push into synthetic drugs.
Last week, the Mexican Army raided a ranch in Jalisco, near Guadalajara, and seized what they claimed was 15 tons of methamphetamines.
GENERAL GILBERTO HERNANDEZ ANDREU: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Announcing the bust, General Gilberto Hernandez Andreu said the lab had 15 reactors for cooking the drugs. The general called it a historic seizure.
Some drug experts have questioned whether this was really 15 tons of pure, street-grade product. Fifteen tons would be equivalent to half of all the methamphetamines confiscated worldwide in 2009. But even if the purity was low, this was still a huge laboratory capable of producing significant quantities of narcotics.
ANTONIO MAZZITELLI: Certainly it is a big blow to whoever was the owner of the shipments and the lab.
BEAUBIEN: Antonio Mazzitelli is the regional representative for the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime, covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. According to the U.N., amphetamines are now the fastest growing illicit drug in the world. Last year, synthetic narcotics surpassed heroin and cocaine to become the second most-used illegal substances on the planet, after marijuana.
MAZZITELLI: The major drug trafficking organizations, particularly the Mexican one, are trying to conquer new markets to their methamphetamine production. That means Latin America, but means also other markets, such as the Asian one.
BEAUBIEN: Methamphetamines are sold on the street as speed, crystal or ice. The drug can be highly addictive and ravages the bodies of long-term users. However Ralph Weisheit, a professor of criminology at Illinois State University, says for drug traffickers meth is extremely attractive
RALPH WEISHEIT: You don't have the bulk per dose that you have with marijuana. In fact, you don't have the bulk per dose that you have with cocaine - it's so much more powerful.
BEAUBIEN: In 2009, Weisheit came out with a book on the history of methamphetamines. He says the Mexican drug cartels are well-positioned to expand into the business.
WEISHEIT: They're in a country where corruption is rampant, which means that getting the precursors isn't going to be that big of a challenge.
BEAUBIEN: And he says getting bulk shipments of those precursor chemicals is the biggest challenge facing anyone who wants to produce industrial quantities of methamphetamines.
WEISHEIT: These precursors are coming from China. They're coming from India. They're coming from countries that are, shall we say, a bit leaky anyway in terms of smuggling things out.
BEAUBIEN: Because the Mexican cartels already have sophisticated networks to smuggle marijuana and cocaine into the United States, they can move their crystal through those same channels. Weisheit says over the last couple of years, Mexican meth has moved steadily from California and the border region into the heartland.
WEISHEIT: For a long time in the Midwest here, if you saw methamphetamine, it was almost entirely in rural areas and almost entirely homemade. To the extent it's not homemade anymore, it's Mexican, and it's working its way across the country as they ramp up production.
BEAUBIEN: And he expects in the coming years the amount of Mexican methamphetamines for sale on America's streets is only going to grow.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.
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