Authorities in Mexico have made what is almost certainly the largest seizure of methamphetamine in the country's history, suggesting growing US demand has encouraged Mexican crime groups to increase production of the drug.
Mexico's marines announced on August 17 that military personnel had discovered a stash of approximately 50 metric tons of methamphetamine along with precursor chemicals and equipment in the town of Alcoyonqui in the western state of Sinaloa.
The drugs, an unspecified portion of which were in partially processed liquid form, were reportedly stored in underground warehouses near the site of a production facility.
Officials did not confirm which crime group the stash belonged to, but the DEA's former Chief of International Operations, Mike Vigil, told InSight Crime that the location and other details about the bust pointed to the Sinaloa Cartel.
The seizure is the largest since February 2012, when authorities found 15 tons of methamphetamine at a laboratory in the state of Jalisco.
The 2012 seizure generated significant concern among law enforcement and independent experts, who said it showed Mexican crime groups were able to produce huge quantities of the drug.
“The big thing it shows is the sheer capacity that these super-labs have in Mexico,” Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told the New York Times at the time. “When we see one lab with the capability to produce such a mass tonnage of meth, it begs a question: What else is out there?”
A slew of media reports this year have highlighted the increasing prevalence of high-purity methamphetamine in the United States, most of which is produced in and trafficked from Mexico, according to a 2017 report from the DEA.
Statistics from the US Customs and Border Protection agency show seizures of methamphetamine, mostly along the border with Mexico, have risen sharply in recent years, from just over 8 tons in 2012 to more than 31 tons in the first seven months of 2018 alone.
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It's likely that an increase in methamphetamine consumption in the United States has spurred Mexican crime groups to ramp up production.
"Methamphetamine abuse in the United States is at an all-time high and it continues to climb," Vigil said. "Demand here drives the market in Mexico in terms of production."
Until the late 1980s, most of the methamphetamine consumed in the United States was manufactured domestically. But in the 1990s and 2000s, growing concern over the dangers associated with the drug pushed lawmakers and law enforcement agencies to crack down on production.
Shutting down lots of mostly small-scale production centers in the United States opened space for large-scale traffickers in Mexico to fill the supply gap.
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"It basically handed over this huge market to the Mexican traffickers who could import the precursors by the barrelful," said Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert at the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies.
"As long as you had a corrupt port officer or someone willing to forge some documents you could import these precursors in large quantities," Tree added. "So you turn an artisanal problem into an industrial problem by doing that."
Vigil said strong law enforcement efforts alone probably won't deliver serious blows to Mexican crime groups.
"We have to do a better job here in the United States in terms of curbing the demand," he said. "Even though it was a very big seizure, there's other labs that are probably producing even more."