ST. LOUIS — Mexican drug cartels are quietly filling the void in the nation's drug market created by the long effort to crack down on American-made methamphetamine, flooding U.S. cities with exceptionally cheap, extraordinarily potent meth from factory-like "superlabs."
Although Mexican meth is not new to the U.S. drug trade, it now accounts for as much as 80 percent of the meth sold here, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And it is as much as 90 percent pure, a level that offers users a faster, more intense and longer-lasting high.
"These are sophisticated, high-tech operations in Mexico that are operating with extreme precision," said Jim Shroba, a DEA agent in St. Louis. "They're moving it out the door as fast as they can manufacture it."
The cartels are expanding into the U.S. meth market just as they did with heroin: developing an inexpensive, highly addictive form of the drug and sending it through the same pipeline already used to funnel marijuana and cocaine, authorities said.
Seizures of meth along the Southwest border have more than quadrupled during the last several years. DEA records reviewed by The Associated Press show that the amount of seized meth jumped from slightly more than 4,000 pounds in 2007 to more than 16,000 pounds in 2011.
During that same period, the purity of Mexican meth shot up too, from 39 percent in 2007 to 88 percent by 2011, according to DEA documents. The price fell 69 percent, tumbling from $290 per pure gram to less than $90.
Mexican meth has a clearer, glassier appearance than more crudely produced formulas and often resembles ice fragments, usually with a clear or bluish-white color. It often has a smell people compare to ammonia, cat urine or even burning plastic.
"You can look at it and see it has a much more pure look," said Paul Roach, a DEA agent in Denver.
The rise of Mexican meth doesn't mean American labs have disappeared. The number of U.S. meth labs continues to rise even as federal, state and local laws place heavy restrictions on the purchase of cold and allergy pills containing pseudoephedrine, a major component in the most common meth recipe.
The crackdowns that began a decade ago have made it more difficult to prepare large batches, so many American meth users have turned to a simpler method that uses a 2-liter soda bottle filled with just enough ingredients to produce a small amount of the drug for personal use.
But south of the border, meth is being made on an industrial scale. Sophisticated factories put out tons of the drug using formulas developed by professional chemists. The final product often is smuggled into the U.S. taped beneath tractor-trailers or hidden inside packages of other drugs.
While clandestine U.S. labs generally supply rural areas, Mexican meth is mostly targeted to urban and suburban users. Increasingly large quantities are turning up in dozens of American cities, including Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, St. Louis and Salt Lake City, according to the DEA.
The marketing format follows a well-established pattern. By simultaneously increasing the purity and cutting the price, the cartels get people hooked and create a new customer base.
"They're marketing geniuses," said Jack Riley, the agent in charge of the DEA office in Chicago.
When Illinois authorities recently confiscated 1,000 pounds of Mexican marijuana, they found 10 pounds of meth hidden among the pot – essentially a free sample for the distributor to give out to drug users, Riley said.
Until recently, meth was seldom seen in major urban areas, except in biker gangs and parts of the gay community, Riley said.
"We've never really seen it on the street like we've seen cocaine and heroin," Riley said. He worries that if the estimated 180,000 members of street gangs in Chicago get involved in meth trafficking, violence could follow.
Like the U.S., Mexico has tightened laws and regulations on pseudoephedrine, though some labs still are able to obtain large amounts from China and India. To fill the void, cartel chemists have turned to an old recipe known as P2P that first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s in some parts of the western U.S.
That recipe uses the organic compound phenylacetone. Because of its use in meth, the U.S. government made it a controlled substance in 1980, essentially stopping that form of meth in the U.S. But in Mexico, the cartels can get phenylacetone from other countries, DEA experts said.
In the third quarter of 2011, 85 percent of lab samples taken from U.S. meth seizures came from the P2P process – up from 50 percent a little more than a year earlier, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said.
Federal agents say the influx of meth from Mexico illustrates the difficulty of waging a two-front war on the drug in neighboring countries. When one source of the drug is dealt a setback, other suppliers step in to satisfy relentless demand.
Considering the relatively untapped market of bigger American cities, the rise of Mexican meth is not surprising, said Illinois State University criminologist Ralph Weisheit, a meth expert.
"It's something that was inevitable," Weisheit said. "This wasn't hard to predict."
American authorities are not the only ones taking notice. The sharp spike in meth activity also is evident from the other side of the border. Seizures of labs and chemicals have increased nearly 1,000 percent in the past two years.
Last year, Mexican authorities made two major busts in the quiet central state of Queretaro, seizing nearly 500 tons of precursor chemicals and 3.4 tons of pure meth with a street value of more than $100 million. In Sinaloa, investigators found a sophisticated underground lab equipped with an elevator and ventilation systems as well as cooking and sleeping facilities. The facility was reachable only by a nearly 100-foot tunnel with its opening concealed under a tractor shed.
And in February, soldiers in western Mexico made a historic seizure: 15 tons of pure methamphetamine, a haul that could have supplied 13 million doses worth more than $4 billion.
The meth problem is spilling into other parts of Latin America too. In December and January, Mexican authorities seized nearly 900 tons of precursor chemicals at Mexican ports, almost all of it bound for Guatemala, which seized about 1,600 tons of meth precursors in 2011 – four times the 400 tons seized there a year earlier.
For now, cocaine remains far and away the cartels' most profitable drug. The RAND Corp. estimates the annual street value of cocaine is about $30 billion, heroin about $20 billion and meth about $5 billion.
But cocaine is getting more expensive and less pure. According to the DEA, the price per pure gram of cocaine rose 59 percent from 2007 through September 2011. At the same time, the purity level dropped 25 percent.
Cocaine also typically comes from Colombia, meaning Mexican cartels serve as middle men who compete against each other to smuggle it into the U.S. That marginalizes their profits.
Because methamphetamine is a synthetic drug the cartels can make for themselves, the profit potential is enormous.
"It's not plant-based," Weisheit said. "It can be completely produced in Mexico. It's very compact, and that makes it easy to smuggle."
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Christopher Sherman in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report.
May 13, 2012
Suspected drug gang hitmen dumped 49 mutilated bodies, stuffed in bags, on a highway outside the northern industrial city of Monterrey. <em>Caption: Federal police stand guard on a vehicle behind a forensic truck containing bodies found on the highway connecting the northern Mexican metropolis of Monterrey to the U.S. border, along the Reynosa-Cadereyta road, in the town of San Juan near the city of Monterrey, Mexico, Sunday, May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Christian Palma)</em>
May 4, 2012
The bodies of nine people were found hanging from a bridge and 14 others found dismembered in the city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the U.S. border from Laredo, in Texas. <em>Caption: Four of nine corpses are seen hanging from a bridge in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state, early morning on May 4, 2012. (RAUL LLAMAS/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Feb 19, 2012
A fight between rival gangs at a prison just outside Monterrey in northern Mexico leaves 44 dead. <em>Caption: Araceli Guevara Ontiveros, the sister of Francisco Guevara Ontiveros --one of the 44 dead in a riot at The Apodaca prison-- is comforted while crying on his coffin during his wake in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on February 21, 2012. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Nov 24, 2011
More than 20 bodies are found in cars in Mexico's second city, Guadalajara, a day after the burned bodies of 16 people are found in the home state of the country's powerful drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman. <em>Caption: A member of the forensic service carries one of the 26 corpses found this morning in three vehicles abandoned in Mexico's second most populous city of Guadalajara, Mexico, on November 24, 2011. (HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Oct 6, 2011
Mexican security forces find 32 bodies at several locations around Veracruz, just two days after the government unveiled a plan to bolster security in Veracruz state. <em>Caption: Mexican army soldiers walk towards their vehicle after seven bodies were found inside a vehicle in the Gulf port city of Veracruz, Mexico, late Friday Oct. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)</em>
Sept 20, 2011
Thirty-five bodies are found abandoned in two trucks on an underpass in the eastern Gulf city of Veracruz, which had been largely untouched by the violence. <em>Caption: Mexican marines stand guard in streets of Veracruz State, Mexico on 24 January 2012. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 25, 2011
Masked gunmen torch a casino in Monterrey, killing 52 people, most of them women. The attack takes less than three minutes. <em>Caption: Relatives of victims cry in front of the Casino Royale, in Monterrey, Mexico, on August 27, 2011. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 20, 2011
Five headless bodies were found in Acapulco, taking the number of people killed in the popular Pacific resort to at least 25 in that one week. <em>Caption: Forensic personnel move the corpse of a person murdered in a hotel at the La Guinea neighbordhood in the town of Acapulco, Guerrero state, Mexico on August 24, 2011. (Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Officials unearthed the first of what turned out to be more than 450 bodies buried in mass graves in the northern states of Durango and Tamaulipas. <em>Caption: Forensic personnel unload at the morgue bodies of people killed execution-style in Matamoros, Tamaulipas State, Mexico, on April, 11, 2011. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 25, 2010
Marines found the bodies of 58 men and 14 women at a ranch near the Gulf of Mexico in Tamaulipas state, 90 miles from the Texas border, after a firefight with drug hitmen in which three gunmen and a marine died. <em>Caption: A worker wearing protective suit and boots walks between two refrigerated trucks parked outside a funeral home where the bodies of 72 men and women that were allegedly killed by the Zetas drug gang, are kept in San Fernando, just 100 miles from the the Mexican border with the U.S. near the city of Matamoros, Thursday Aug. 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)</em>
July 24, 2010
Police unearthed 51 bodies in a grave outside Mexico's business capital, Monterrey, in northern Mexico over several days. Some corpses were burned beyond recognition. <em>Caption: View of the remains of two burnt bodies found in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on October 20, 2010. The bodies were found under burnt wooden pallets. (Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
July 18, 2010
Gunmen burst into a birthday party in the northern city of Torreon, using automatic weapons to kill 17 party-goers and wound 18 others. Mexican authorities said later those responsible were incarcerated cartel hitmen let out of jail by corrupt officials. The killers allegedly borrowed weapons and vehicles from prison guards and later returned to their cells. <em>Caption: Police officers patrol a street in Torreon, in the Mexican northern state of Coahuila, Monday, July 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Ramon Sotomayor)</em>
June 28, 2010
Suspected cartel gunmen shot and killed a popular gubernatorial candidate in the northern state of Tamaulipas in the worst cartel attack on a politician to date. Rodolfo Torre, 46, and four aides from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, were ambushed on their way to a campaign event for the July 4 state election. <em>Caption: A billboard with the portrait of the candidate for Governor of Tamaulipas state for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Rodolfo Torre, and reading 'A leader forever' is seen during his funeral at the Polyforum in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on June 29, 2010. (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
March 13, 2010
Hitmen killed three people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez in March, provoking "outrage" from U.S. President Barack Obama. <em>Caption:The U.S. national flag flutters at half-mast at the entrance of the consulate of the United States in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on March 15, 2010. (Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Jan 31, 2010
Suspected cartel assailants killed 13 high school students and two adults at a party in Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas. <em>Caption: Students enter a high school in Ciudad Juarez, a city ridden by homicidal violence along Mexico's border with Texas. (Tim Johnson/MCT via Getty Images)</em>
Sept 15, 2008
Suspected members of the Zetas drug gang tossed grenades into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in the western city of Morelia, killing eight people and wounding more than 100. <em>Caption: From left to right: Julio Cesar Mondragon Mendoza, Juan Carlos Castro Galeana, and Alfredo Rosas Elicea, are members of a group of hitmen called the 'Zetas' shown to the press at the General Attorney's office in Mexico City, on September 26, 2008. The three gangsters confessed that they are the authors of a grenade attack that killed eight people during the celebration of Independence Day in Morelia, western Mexico. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>