Seizures of precursor chemicals for synthetic drugs and raids on drug labs have multiplied in Mexico and Guatemala in recent months, as experts say traffickers are increasingly turning to production.
The shift is another sign of the growth of Mexico's cartels, once known as cocaine traffickers to the United States and now infamous for violent turf wars and trafficking drugs to Australia or Africa, people trafficking and extortion.
In Mexico, many synthetic drug laboratories have been discovered in western Pacific coast states, where there has also been a sharp rise in seizures of precursor chemicals in port cities, mostly on ships from China.
We note "a change of direction in the activities of criminal organisations, who are turning to the production of synthetic drugs," said general Ricardo Trevilla, spokesman for the Mexican army, in a recent statement.
Mexican authorities have not published figures on the production of synthetic drugs but say they have uncovered 646 laboratories and seized more than 45 tons of methamphetamine and 13.5 million psychoactive pills since 2006.
Between 2001 and 2006, the army discovered only 10 laboratories for producing synthetic drugs.
In 2011, they also intercepted more than 1,200 tons (1088622 kg) of precursor chemicals used in drugs such as amphetamines, including monomethylamine, derived from ammonia.
Mexican defence officials say the rapid growth of drug labs is partly due to the success of the government's eradication of marijuana or heroin poppy fields.
Drug labs are increasing
But authorities also say it is easier to set up a lab than plant a field of drug crops and, most importantly, the profits are greater.
"Synthetic drugs represent a very attractive opportunity for criminal organisations because, unlike natural drugs, they can be produced anywhere, once the organisation has access to precursor chemicals and a basic knowledge," said Antonio Mazzitelli, director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
These activities "allow them to obtain a product that can be sent onto the market very cheaply," with a world market of synthetic drugs estimated at $65 billion, he said.
In neighbouring Guatemala – which has seen major incursions by Mexican gangs in recent years – security forces captured 30 tons (27216 kg) of precursor chemicals in 2011, and 6 tons (5443 kg) so far in 2012, according to official figures.
Some observers, including US-based analysts Stratfor, speculate that Mexican cartels may be moving production of methamphetamine south of the border in response to Mexico's military clampdown on organised crime.
"The increased confiscation of precursor chemicals could mean Mexican authorities are getting better at their jobs, but the fact remains that more and more shipments of precursor chemicals are destined for Mexico's southern neighbour," said a recent report from Stratfor.
Meth more popular than cocaine
In the United States, methamphetamine, also known as "meth" or "crystal,” is now more popular than cocaine and heroine in poorer communities, and their effects are devastating.
Cheap and extremely addictive, they can lead to mental problems like schizophrenia or paranoia and contribute to the spread of HIV, according to experts.
They have also spread to new markets in Mexico and Central America.
"There's another related phenomenon which is the development of local markets in countries which were not consumers. That applies to Mexico and Central America," according to Mazzitelli.
In small, poor countries like Guatemala the presence of chemicals bring other risks as well.
US authorities last month warned Guatemalans to keep away from a storage area in the capital, Guatemala City, due to a risk of explosions.
(Sapa-AFP, February 2012)
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