The military announced the seizure of more than 800 tons of precursor chemicals in central Mexico, a new record in this crucial but under-reported front of the war on drugs.
On July 18, Mexican armed forces raided an industrial warehouse in the central state of Queretaro, seizing a 839.5 metric tons of material used to make methamphetamine. It was stored in more than 30,000 sacks, each weighing about 25 kilograms. According to El Universal, this is the largest seizure of precursor chemicals in the country's history. It dwarfed the previous record, 200 tons of chemicals seized by Mexican Marines in August 2010.
Although the trade in precursor chemicals is often overlooked by the press -- which tends to focus on large drug seizures and high-profile arrests -- it is an important component of the illicit drug industry in Latin America and the Caribbean. Except for marijuana, all major drugs require chemical inputs, either to produce synthetic drugs, like methamphetamine, or to process naturally occurring substances (coca plants, heroin poppies) and make them ready to consume.
INCB List of Precursor Chemicals
While regulations on precursor chemicals vary throughout the region, the main treaty which addresses these substances on an international scale is the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The treaty tasks the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) with maintaining a list of common precursor chemicals, which it divides into categories based on their potential for abuse and importance to drug production. Table I substances are more tightly regulated than those in Table II.
Under the 1988 Convention, the 172 signatories are bound by international law to adopt measures to monitor the inflow of substances in Table I or Table II, as well as to seize any such substance “if there is sufficient evidence that it is for use in the illicit manufacture of a narcotic drug or psychotropic substance.”
Methamphetamine can be made a number of different ways, but its main precursor chemicals are pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, both of which are commonly found in cough medicines and nasal decongestants. The most common method of methamphetamine production is known as the “Red, White and Blue Method,” so named because it involves the use of phosphorus (which is red), ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (which is white), and iodine (which is blue or violet). As the name implies, this form of production originated on a small scale in the Midwest and Southern United States.
When U.S. law enforcement officials first began to crack down on methamphetamine in the 1980s, production of the drug moved to Mexico where it has since taken on a much more industrial form. Now it is much more frequently made in large “super labs,” with more complex chemical reactions that require giant drug-producing reactors, such as the one recently discovered by police in Sinaloa, Mexico.
According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment, efforts by Mexican authorities to limit the import of vast amounts of methamphetamine precursor chemicals have failed to cut production, and merely resulted in drug trafficking organizations using “alternative, less efficient precursors.” Currently, the DEA reports that around 80 percent of the U.S.'s methamphetamine is produced in Mexico. The fact that these chemicals all have legal farming or medical uses makes it especially difficult for authorities to crack down on their sale.
Both pseudoephedrine and ephedrine are listed by the INCB as Table I substances.
While heroin production is not as complex as methamphetamine production, it still involves a fair amount of processing. After raw opium is extracted from poppies, this thick dark substance is gathered and refined into a morphine base, and processed. The essential precursor in this process is acetic anhydride, a chemical which is used to manufacture aspirin, develop photographs and tan leather.
The 2011 U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report claims that poppy crops in Mexico increased to 19,500 hectares in 2009, a 31 percent jump from 2008. This is up from an estimated 6,900 hectares in 2007, meaning that the country experienced close to a 300 percent increase in poppy production in just two years. As InSight Crime has noted, however, this figure is contested by Mexican authorities and data collected by the UN, which failed to note a complementary surge in demand for heroin during this period.
Acetic anhydride is listed by the INCB as a Table I substance.
As well as being relatively simple to produce, cocaine is by far the most lucrative drug on the market. The 2011 United Nations World Drug Report estimates that sales of the drug net $88 billion annually in the retail market alone. According to the report, the country with the most cocaine production is Colombia, where there have been processing labs at work in both cities and rural areas since the 1970s.
The main method of cocaine production is acid-base extraction, a process which has changed little since the drug was first made. After coca leaves are harvested (which can occur several times throughout the year), they are dried, chopped into small pieces and then mixed in with small amounts of either powdered cement or sodium carbonate. This mixture is soaked in gasoline, and then drained. Next, drug producers use sulfuric acid to isolate cocaine free base, and, after adding caustic soda, the cocaine is filtered out with a cloth. Aside from gasoline, acetone and potassium permanganate are the main precursor chemicals associated with cocaine production. While the former is a common ingredient in nail polish removal, the latter is used as a disinfectant and water purifier. Because of the benign and commonplace nature of these two chemicals, it is especially difficult for authorities to crack down on their use.
While the INCB classifies potassium permanganate as a Table I substance, acetone is a Table II substance.