YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Argentina a new hub for meth traffickers

Crackdowns in Mexico have prompted drug gangs to look south for supplies of ephedrine, a key ingredient.

October 13, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — The three young entrepreneurs met their contacts outside a Wal-Mart here and drove off with them, apparently convinced that they would be celebrating a lucrative new deal.

But authorities believe it was a set-up, linked to Mexican mobsters bent on reshaping the global drug trafficking map.

The three men were handcuffed, forced to kneel in the mud and sprayed with bullets; their bodies were dumped in a ditch.

The execution-style slayings have sent shock waves across Argentina, which has largely been spared the drug violence seen in Colombia and Peru, the world's top cocaine producers. These killings, authorities say, were related to a more prosaic product: ephedrine, the synthetic stimulant found in cough and cold remedies. Ephedrine is also used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, the highly addictive drug long a scourge in the United States.

Officials suspect that the three men were involved with a relatively new smuggling route called the "ephedrine highway," the triangulated transport of ephedrine from Asia to Argentina to Mexico, ultimately destined for the booming U.S. meth market.

Mexican traffickers have become the main suppliers of methamphetamine to the United States. But a crackdown in Mexico has squeezed supplies of ephedrine from Asia, leading the gangs to seek their raw material in Argentina, a nation with a robust pharmaceutical industry, relatively few controls and a reputation for corrupt cops and customs inspectors.

The Mexican-Argentine relationship has proved an expedient marriage: abundant product, a compliant host nation and an efficient trafficking network. But the brutal killings have exposed the perils of courting Mexican drug rings.

"When Mexican traffickers arrive they bring in organized crime and violence," said Special Agent Michael Sanders, a spokesman in Washington for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "That has unfortunately proved to be the case in Argentina."


Expanding networks

Once confined largely to their homeland and U.S. border states, Mexican criminal gangs have vaulted over international frontiers and formed far-flung alliances.

"The Mexican trafficking organizations already have smuggling routes set up throughout South America for moving cocaine," Sanders said. "So traffickers can use the same routes and techniques to move ephedrine."

Methamphetamine is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States, though its use is believed to have leveled off since the 1990s. Last year, federal authorities reported that a red, cherry-flavored methamphetamine, called go-fast, showed up in Central and Northern California, aimed at the youth market

U.S. authorities began to notice last year that street prices were soaring for methamphetamine, acting U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart said at a conference in July in Istanbul, Turkey. Authorities attribute the price increase to heightened enforcement pressures south of the Rio Grande.

The lure of drug profits had for years spurred large-scale importation of ephedrine and related products to Mexico, mostly from Asia. At Washington's urging, Mexico last year moved to ban most ephedrine imports and moved aggressively against meth labs.

In one high-profile case, Mexican police busted a methamphetamine ring allegedly run by a Shanghai-born Mexican citizen, Zhenli Ye Gon. He is accused of bringing in vast quantities of an ephedrine derivative from China. Mexican police also seized more than $200 million in cash from Ye Gon's lavish Mexico City residence. The record bust pinched the amphetamine pipeline, authorities said.

As a result, desperate Mexican traffickers turned to Argentina, according to the DEA.

Argentina, like Mexico, is not a manufacturer of ephedrine. But the country's pharmaceutical sector is a major importer, buying mostly from China and India.

Imports of ephedrine to Argentina recently began to soar -- from 2.9 tons in 2004 to 19.1 tons in 2007, according to government figures.

Police suspect ephedrine, and possibly manufactured methamphetamine, was being smuggled from Argentina to Mexico via at least two methods -- by "mules" on commercial flights, the diluted drugs sometimes placed in wine bottles carried on board; or disguised as sugar or other products in maritime shipping containers. Once converted to methamphetamine in Mexico, the drug is smuggled into the U.S. by individuals and in cars and trucks, just like other illegal substances.


Hiring collaborators

But the Mexicans could not do it alone. They needed Argentine partners with links to legitimate pharmacies and drug laboratories, which could legally import ephedrine.

Los Angeles Times Articles