Mexican meth trade snares Argentina

Drug gangs seek raw material from new outlet

By Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times / October 20, 2008
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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 setup linked to Mexican mobsters bent on reshaping the global drug-trafficking map.

The three men were handcuffed and sprayed with bullets; their bodies were dumped in a ditch.

The execution-style slayings sent shock waves across Argentina, which has been spared the drug violence seen in Colombia and Peru, the world's top cocaine producers. These killings, authorities say, were related to ephedrine, the synthetic stimulant found in cough and cold medicines. 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 new smuggling route called the "ephedrine highway," the triangulated transport of ephedrine from Asia to Argentina to Mexico, destined for the US 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 drug gangs to seek their raw material in Argentina, a nation with a robust pharmaceutical industry, few controls, and a reputation for corrupt police 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 US Drug Enforcement Administration. "That has unfortunately proved to be the case in Argentina."

Once confined to their homeland and US 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. In 2007, federal authorities reported that red, cherry-flavored methamphetamine, called "go-fast" and aimed at the youth market, showed up in Central and Northern California.

US authorities noticed last year that street prices were soaring for methamphetamine, said Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the DEA, at a conference in July 2008 in Istanbul. Authorities attribute the price increase to heightened enforcement pressure south of the Rio Grande.

For years, the lure of drug profits had spurred large-scale importation of ephedrine and related products to Mexico, mostly from Asia. At Washington's urging, Mexico last year banned 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, China-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 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 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.

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