How Mexico Became the US's Main Meth Supplier

Mexico methamphetamine lab

Mexican authorities bust a meth lab in 2009

The majority of crystal meth consumed in the US is now coming from south of the border where Mexican cartels are getting straight A’s in chemistry.

According to Richard Fahey, Deputy Special Agent in Charge with the Department of Homeland Security, “Right now [Mexican cartels] control probably 90 percent of the meth market in the US."

This market, based on US Department of Health estimates from last year of past month users, is almost 600,000 people (a prevalence rate of 0.2 percent), one that is up significantly from 2010 when roughly 350,000 had used in the past month.

In the past decade, the number of US meth labs seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has more than halved, from 24,000 in 2004 to 11,573 last year, pointing to a sharp drop-off in domestic production. Alongside this, seizures on the US's southwest border of methamphetamine coming from Mexico have jumped by over 200 percent since 2009 (see graph, below) according to the latest DEA National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.

US federal legislation and crackdowns by local law enforcement have obviously been a key factor in pushing production south of the border, but there are also other reasons behind concreting this shift: Mexican meth is cheaper and, on the whole, much purer. As Sergeant Jason Grellner, a Missouri police officer, told Vice News, cartels have largely invested in research and development, altering one of meth's isomers and allowing them to produce a drug close to 100 percent purity in the two years from 2010 when it was about 55 percent pure. 

Additionally, cartels have been utilizing an old recipe known as “P2P” (phenyl-2-propanone) that was mainly used during the 1960s and 1970s. This method has helped criminal groups to circumvent a 2008 Mexican law banning the importation of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine -- key ingredients in the manufacture of the drug. According to a 2013 INCB report, “seizures of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine were almost non-existent [in Mexico] in 2012, as the P2P-based manufacturing process has become the dominant method used."

The P2P method uses ethyl phenylacetate, an organic compound that is illegal in the US but not in Mexico. However, that does not mean that Mexican drug cartels have completely abandoned the use of pseudoephedrine to cook meth. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In a prime example of the so-called "balloon effect" in action, cartels have merely diverted part of their meth production to neighboring Guatemala, where earlier this year authorities discovered one of the biggest meth laboratories in the country to date, likely connected to the Sinaloa Cartel. Back in 2012, 16,000 kg of ethyl phenylacetate was seized in a warehouse in Guatemala, a sign of its growing role in trading in precursor chemicals.

Combine all of the production factors with the drop in retail price -- $290 per pure gram to around $100, according to DEA Special Agent Jim Shrobe -- it is hardly surprising that US meth labs are going out of business.

Still, this drastic shift and increase in potency needn't all be bad news, according to Sergeant Grellner, who told the AP:

“The great news is that meth from Mexico doesn't explode, doesn't burn down your house and your neighbor’s home, doesn't contaminate your property, doesn't kill children the way meth labs have done here in the US for decades.”