HomeNewsMethamphetamine Production in Mexico Is Toxic for the Environment
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Methamphetamine Production in Mexico Is Toxic for the Environment

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME / 3 NOV 2022 BY VICTORIA DITTMAR* EN

It is over 33 degrees Celsius, and a strong smell of dead animals pollutes the fresh air in the Western Sierra Madre mountain range. Two dead cows lying next to a river have been decomposing for a few days and are bloated with flies.

The cattle ranch they came from is only a couple of kilometers away, in a small, remote area between the states of Sinaloa and Durango. This region, known as the Golden Triangle, was for years home to much of Mexico's illicit cultivation of cannabis and opium poppy, used to make marijuana and heroin. Today, it is the epicenter of synthetic drug production in Mexico and suffers from the resulting environmental damage.

The cows had wandered through the bush towards the river in search of water but were poisoned by chemicals found along the way. Until a few days ago, a group of approximately nine people ran a clandestine laboratory here, which had the capacity to produce up to 5,000 liters of liquid methamphetamine with the chemicals and equipment present.

*In northern Mexico, the rise of synthetic drugs has come with serious consequences. In this three-part series, InSight Crime looks at the social, public health, and environmental impacts of large-scale synthetic drug production and related consumption at the local level in the states of Sinaloa and Baja California. See parts one and three.

Although the machinery was rustic and, at times, improvised, the group had managed to establish a functional meth lab in the middle of the forest. With power cables and hoses spread throughout the area, they operated two chemical reactors, three furnaces, and two industrial chemical filters.

In mid-October 2022, following an anonymous tip, local and federal authorities launched an operation to find and dismantle the lab. Getting there wasn't easy. Police officials had to go deep into the ejidos (community-owned farmlands), cross a river, and walk an hour uphill through the mountains.

When they arrived, there was no one to be found. The "cooks," possibly alerted by lookouts, also called "pointers" or "hawks," had managed to flee, leaving behind all of the lab's infrastructure, their clothes, blankets, hammocks, cooking utensils, spoiled food, garbage, shovels, and plastic and aluminum containers. Before leaving, they had opened dozens of containers in which chemicals were stored. An intense smell causing dizziness, headaches, and burning eyes was produced when the chemicals evaporated.

"It's such a strong smell that it's impossible to forget," a local security official who participated in the operation told InSight Crime. The odor is an unmistakable indicator of methamphetamine production, they added.

As the team moved deeper into the lab, the stench of dead cows faded to be replaced with the smell of acetone, ammonia, and ether. They had to wear gas masks in order to continue.

A cow lies dead after drinking contaminated water. Sinaloa, Mexico. Credit: Marcos Vizcarra

Sinaloa, the Epicenter of Methamphetamine Production

From 2010 to June 2022, Mexican authorities secured nearly 700 clandestine laboratories in the state of Sinaloa and neighboring municipalities such as Tamazula in the state of Durango, according to data from the National Defense Ministry (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional - SEDENA) shared with InSight Crime. This is equivalent to 46% of all clandestine laboratories that have been seized in the country. 

Due to the intensity of the odor they give off, methamphetamine production facilities are typically located in rural areas and away from large towns. However, they are usually close enough to an urban center, such as the city of Culiacán, where the drug can be stockpiled and transformed into "crystal" and later be distributed in Mexico or trafficked to the United States.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa State Dominates Fentanyl and Meth Production in Mexico

Although the methamphetamine market in this state is controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel -- mainly the Chapitos, a faction controlled by the sons of “El Chapo” -- processing is carried out by several criminal networks that have some autonomy but must comply with production quotas.

Improvised ovens at a clandestine methamphetamine lab in Sinaloa, Mexico. Credit: Victoria Dittmar/InSight Crime

Environmental Damage

The producers of the laboratory that InSight Crime visited had divided the space into several sections: camps for overnight stays, an area for "cooking" the methamphetamine and another for cooking food, a space for filtering the drug, another for storing it, and finally two pits for disposing of chemical waste. 

These processes, particularly the disposal of chemical waste, are a risk to the environment. According to the most recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report, for every kilogram of methamphetamine produced, up to 10 kilograms of chemicals are discarded. Most of these are acids, solvents, and binders, but a considerable proportion of precursor and pre-precursor chemicals, like methylamine, sodium cyanide, and phenylacetic acid, are also discarded.

SEE ALSO: Meth, Fentanyl, Ecstasy: Synthetic Drugs Flourish in Latin America

These substances can have a harmful impact on soil and water quality, a chemistry lecturer at a university in northwestern Mexico who did not want to be named due to security reasons, told InSight Crime. 

"Many of the chemicals used in clandestine laboratories acidify the soil, accelerating soil erosion," he said during an interview in his office. 

The professor added that the disposal of chemicals into bodies of water can cause them to be absorbed into agricultural crops and contaminate drinking water sources in communities near the laboratories. 

A drainage pit for waste chemicals at a clandestine methamphetamine lab. Sinaloa, México. Credit: Victoria Dittmar/InSight Crime

The UNODC clarifies that the actual amount of waste produced by each laboratory -- and therefore the magnitude of the environmental impact -- depends on the method used to synthesize the drug, the number of people working, and their expertise. In the case of Mexico, those working in clandestine laboratories are usually not specialized chemists, so the processes for cleaning, handling, and disposing of substances are often inadequate, according to chemistry experts InSight Crime spoke with.

To date, no study has systematically measured the environmental impacts of illicit synthetic drug production in Mexico. However, environmental conservation activists in Sinaloa suggested to InSight Crime that this damage is already observable. 

A river contaminated with waste chemicals from methamphetamine production. Sinaloa, Mexico. Credit: Marcos Vizcarra

In the Sinaloa highlands, for example, an environmental activist working on wildlife conservation who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, commented that the presence of people in clandestine laboratories has impacted the movement of native animals, such as jaguars. In the long term, this could affect their breeding patterns, feeding, and other ecological processes, leading to a reduction in population. 

"Everything that is discarded [from clandestine laboratories] affects the animals. But we don't know the magnitude of the problem. We are in complete ignorance," they added.

At the foothills of the Sierra, in the San Lorenzo Valley, several clandestine laboratories have been found near agricultural land, where a number of agrochemicals and pesticides are also used. The damage is evident: lagoons and rivers have dried up, and animals native to the area, such as the American crocodile, have been affected.

"Chemicals from clandestine laboratories and those used in agriculture end up in the rivers. The animals are dying," an environmental activist who works in crocodile conservation told InSight Crime. The activist did not want to be named due to security concerns.

The activist mentioned that in the last seven years, fertility levels have dropped among this population and that crocodiles have been born with malformations.

Soil erosion, drought, and contamination in a lagoon near agricultural fields and clandestine laboratories. Sinaloa, Mexico. Credit: Victoria Dittmar/InSight Crime

Another activist in Sinaloa, who works on environmental education projects, told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity that in areas close to where methamphetamine is produced, changes in the color of river water and an increase in dead fish have been identified. 

Likewise, nearby communities have begun to experience adverse health effects. This was also mentioned by a Sinaloa state police official.

"In several communities near clandestine laboratories, we have been told that children who are in constant contact with the river have had intense headaches. We think it may be related [to chemical waste]," they told InSight Crime.

*Marcos Vizcarra, Sara García, and Parker Asmann contributed reporting to this article.

Lead photo: Marcos Vizcarra

*In northern Mexico, the rise of synthetic drugs has come with serious consequences. In this three-part series, InSight Crime looks at the social, public health, and environmental impacts of large-scale synthetic drug production and related consumption at the local level in the states of Sinaloa and Baja California. See parts one and three.

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