GUADALAJARA — The methamphetamine laboratories that once plagued California's hinterlands and powered a national explosion of drug abuse have been replaced by an increasing supply from Mexico, U.S. law enforcement officials say.
Methamphetamine production has surged south of the border, from Baja California ranches to the highlands of Michoacan to the industrial parks here in Mexico's second largest city, where authorities in January busted the largest laboratory ever discovered in the Americas.
The fortress-like compound ringed by high brick walls housed 11 custom-designed pressure cookers that could produce 400 pounds of the drug per day. It dwarfed anything ever found in California, where the standard cooking tool is a 23-quart beaker and a 20-pound batch is considered a good production day.
"It was the mother lode of mother lodes," a U.S. law enforcement official said.
The boom in Mexican methamphetamine production stems from successful efforts in the U.S. to control the sale of chemicals used to produce the drug, including the cold medicine pseudoephedrine.
Drug traffickers, some of them ex-convicts and fugitives from the United States, including a former chemistry professor from Idaho arrested last month, authorities say, have resettled in Mexico because of the easy access to pseudoephedrine and other chemicals.
The largest share of the chemicals is believed to be shipped to Mexico from factories in China and India and routed through Hong Kong. China has emerged as the top concern for U.S. authorities.
Like traffic in heroin and cocaine, the methamphetamine economy has become a global phenomenon. So too is the battle to control what most U.S. law enforcement authorities consider the country's greatest drug threat.
'A new ice age'
"The cliche is coming true: We've entered a new ice age," said Misha Piastro, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who has worked on the U.S.-Mexico border, referring to the smokable form of the drug called ice.
The trend began surfacing about two years ago as a crackdown on the bulk distribution of ingredients cut off producers from supplies in the U.S. and, later, Canada.
The rural fringes of California metropolitan areas, including the Inland Empire, which once were centers of methamphetamine production, remain important distribution hubs. But the number of "superlab" discoveries in California has dropped from 125 in 2003 to 12 through mid-October this year, according to the DEA. Nationwide, the numbers have dropped from 130 to 19 during the same period. Superlabs are operations that can produce more than 10 pounds of methamphetamine per cooking cycle.
Authorities now estimate that 80% of the methamphetamine on U.S. streets is controlled by Mexican drug traffickers, with most of the supply smuggled in from Mexico. Methamphetamine seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border jumped 50% from 2003 through 2005, from 4,030 to 6,063 pounds.
Mapping the methamphetamine production network is difficult in a country of remote ranchlands and under-patrolled metropolitan areas. Few law enforcement authorities are trained to recognize the signs of a drug lab, including the fumes and pollutants that pose significant environmental hazards.
Nonetheless, the number of labs discovered by Mexican authorities nearly tripled from 2002 to 2005, from 13 to 37, and methamphetamine seizures more than doubled, to 2,169 pounds, during the same period. U.S. authorities believe the numbers are a fraction of actual activity, as signs of an extensive production infrastructure have surfaced in the last year or so.
Among those signs: Mexico's importation of cold medicines jumped suddenly in recent years, from 92,000 tons in 2002 to 150,000 tons in 2005. Though recently imposed restrictions have cut legal imports by about half this year, U.S. authorities believe significant amounts are still being smuggled through corruption-ridden Mexican ports.
Last December, Mexican authorities at the Pacific Coast port of Manzanillo found 5.1 million pseudoephedrine tablets hidden in a cargo of ceiling fans from China. The cache would have been enough to produce about 3 tons of finished product, authorities said.
Last November, China toughened its reporting and licensing requirements for those manufacturing, shipping, trading and exporting bulk chemicals such as pseudoephedrine, a step welcomed by international drug enforcement officials.
But Beijing did not impose limits or reporting requirements on end users. Smugglers are still free to buy millions of cold tablets, hide these in Chinese export products and ship them to Mexico or other destinations, as seen with the ceiling-fan discovery.
China also faces problems similar to those in Mexico -- budget constraints, corruption, turf battles and inadequate detection and monitoring equipment.
Public health problem