HomeNewsAnalysisHistoric Seizure Highlights Role of Drug Precursor Chemicals
ANALYSIS

Historic Seizure Highlights Role of Drug Precursor Chemicals

METHAMPHETAMINE / 22 JUL 2011 BY GEOFFREY RAMSEY EN

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

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.

Heroin

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.

Cocaine

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.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

EXTORTION / 20 MAY 2011

Mexico's government secretary said that organized criminal groups now control whole areas of territory in the country, and…

AYOTZINAPA / 2 MAY 2018

The gruesome killing of three students in the state of Jalisco has raised fresh questions about Mexico’s capacity to effectively…

KNIGHTS TEMPLAR / 11 SEP 2012

Reports that an alleged rapist was crucified in rural Michoacan, west Mexico, raise the question of whether the Knights Templar…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Apure Investigation Makes Headlines

22 OCT 2021

InSight Crime’s investigation into the battle for the Venezuelan border state of Apure resonated in both Colombian and Venezuelan media. A dozen outlets picked up the report, including Venezuela’s…

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Tackles Illegal Fishing

15 OCT 2021

In October, InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) began a year-long project on illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing in…

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Featured in Handbook for Reporting on Organized Crime

8 OCT 2021

In late September, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) published an excerpt of its forthcoming guide on reporting organized crime in Indonesia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Probing Organized Crime in Haiti

1 OCT 2021

InSight Crime has made it a priority to investigate organized crime in Haiti, where an impotent state is reeling after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, coupled with an…

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.