The recent seizure of $16 million worth of methamphetamines by US customs officials underscores rising seizure and overdose trends in the United States — with the coronavirus pandemic having likely increased the drug's profit potential.
On August 5, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at the Pharr International Bridge near McAllen, Texas, discovered 365 kilograms of methamphetamine hidden inside a commercial trailer carrying broccoli, according to a CBP news release.
While this discovery represented an unusually large seizure, it was not the only methamphetamine interdiction in recent weeks. On August 7, a CBP inspection of a semi-tuck in San Diego, California, found 303 kilograms of methamphetamine packed inside crates of cactus pads, the Los Angeles Times reported. And in late July, officials in Missouri charged twenty-five individuals in connection to a methamphetamine distribution ring that moved more than 520 kilograms of the drug over the course of three years.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of US-Mexico Border
Methamphetamine seizures by US border enforcement agencies have increased exponentially over the past several years. According to CBP enforcement statistics, the CBP's Office of Field Operations (OFO) has seized 59 tons of methamphetamine so far in the fiscal year 2020, which runs from October to October. This number is 1.5 times greater than the 34.3 tons seized in the fiscal year 2019 and more than six times greater than the 9.8 tons seized in the fiscal year 2014.
At the same time, drug overdoses in the United States increased in 2019 after a small dip in 2018. According to the New York Times, nearly 72,000 US residents died from a drug overdose in 2019, with approximately 16,539 of those overdoses involving "stimulants such as meth,” according to the report.
In February, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced the launch of a new initiative titled “Operation Crystal Shield” that would “direct enforcement resources” to the eight metropolitan areas that accounted for 75 percent of all methamphetamine seizures in 2019.
According to a DEA press release, Operation Crystal Shield is meant “to ramp up enforcement to block further distribution [of methamphetamine] into America’s neighborhoods.”
InSight Crime Analysis
Cheap to produce, and able to be manufactured into various forms, methamphetamine has proven to be a consistent market as the coronavirus pandemic has threatened other operations.
The precursors needed to make methamphetamine, such as the cold medicine pseudoephedrine, are abundant and cheap, despite efforts on both sides of the border to curb their availability.
In the United States, legislative efforts in the early 2000s drastically reduced domestic methamphetamine manufacturing. However, as drug policy experts explained to InSight Crime in 2018, this success had the inverse effect of handing the lucrative and growing market over to drug trafficking groups in Mexico.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy
There, traffickers have used a range of tactics to acquire precursor chemicals. One common technique, known as "smurfing," sees numerous individuals purchase pseudoephedrine from a number of shops, each purchase just under the legal limit.
Groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) have also turned to China to secure chemical precursors for methamphetamine and fentanyl.
As criminal groups have become better at producing and moving methamphetamine over the past decade, the street price for the drug has fallen, incentivizing criminal groups to expand into new markets. At the same time, drug traffickers have shown themselves capable of exercising remarkable control over methamphetamine prices.
In June, InSight Crime reported on how groups in Tijuana were artificially lowering street prices of methamphetamine and heroin in order to hold on to buyers during the coronavirus pandemic. On the other hand, the Sinaloa Cartel allegedly told members in April to increase methamphetamine prices six fold to cover for shortages of Chinese precursor chemicals during the COVID-19 lockdowns, according to VICE.
The phenomenon mirrors the adaptability demonstrated by trafficking groups across Latin America during the pandemic. Faced with movement restrictions, criminal organizations have moved into cheaper and more high-demand markets — such as “creepy” marijuana in Chile and cigarettes in South America’s Southern Cone.