CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Eighty white bags of an industrial chemical arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from China in mid-April, bound for central Mexico.
The methylamine chloride — weighing nearly 3 tons — could have been used to make pesticides or pharmaceuticals. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the shipment was likely headed to Mexican drug traffickers to be manufactured into methamphetamine worth $40 million on the streets of the United States.
An explosion in such chemical ingredients from China has made it clear that the U.S. meth problem is no longer just about local police and homemade drug labs in the heartland. A global manufacturing and trafficking network now spans the Pacific, connecting Chinese chemical factories, bloody drug cartels in Mexico and users in the United States, according to defense and drug enforcement officials.
This week, the head of the Department of Defense’s anti-trafficking task force in the Pacific was joined by Obama administration officials in traveling to China to meet with the country’s security, health and customs ministries in the latest effort to curb the flow of meth ingredients through U.S. Pacific Command territory.
“It is a big problem, and it is getting bigger,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Rendon, director of the DOD Joint Interagency Task Force West, which coordinates efforts to interdict meth chemicals within the 100 million square miles that includes some of the world’s busiest cargo routes. “It goes without saying it is a challenge.”
About 80 percent of the meth in the United States is now made in Mexico mainly using Chinese ingredients shipped across the Pacific, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DOD task force, which includes all five military branches and a bevy of federal law enforcement agencies, monitors trans-Pacific cargo for suspicious shipments.
Since 2009, it has assisted in seizing 1,500 tons of meth ingredients, called precursor chemicals, according to a task force spokesman. Meanwhile, meth and precursor chemical seizures inside Mexico increased 1,000 percent between 2010 and 2011, the DEA reported.
Chinese precursor chemicals are still reaching Mexican traffickers, who are cooking up industrial-sized batches of the powerful drug worth tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars. The task force seizures alone could have produced about 750 tons of a drug that’s used by the gram, according to a manufacturing process described by the DEA.
With the precursor trade on the rise, Rendon and Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, are hoping to persuade the Chinese government to help stem the meth problem at the source.
“The rising threat of new synthetic drugs requires a truly international response, and we look forward to extending our cooperative work with China to address the dangers that these substances pose to the citizens of both our countries,” ONDCP spokesman Berit Hallberg wrote in an email response to Stars and Stripes.
China has become the top supplier to Mexican traffickers due to loose regulations on its chemical manufacturing and export industry, according to a DEA expert on the worldwide movement of precursor chemicals who spoke to Stars and Stripes on background.
Traffickers have resorted to a production process that can use up to 30 common chemical ingredients. Many are legally produced within the U.S., Asia and Europe under tight regulations designed to tamp down the manufacture of illegal drugs, the DEA source said.
China regulates just one of those 30 chemicals, allowing its factories to legally produce and export a wide variety of substances that can be used to make perfumes and flavorings — or fuel the illegal flow of meth into the United States, the source said.
“The traffickers have this whole class of chemicals that they can go to that in some countries are controlled and some countries are not,” the source said.
The United States and Mexico do have strict regulations that allow seizures of ingredients that are not properly declared or are smuggled. Now, discoveries of massive precursor caches from China are commonplace.
The Mexican navy announced in January that a single bust had netted about 195 tons of meth chemicals shipped from Chinese suppliers. Over the previous six weeks, it had seized 900 tons of precursors, according to media reports.
Meanwhile, the amount of meth found by U.S. agents at Mexico border crossings more than doubled to 7.3 tons from 2009 to 2011, the DEA reported.
In what has become a common scene, a Mexican driver rolled up to the U.S. border checkpoint at Nogales, Ariz., on Aug. 24. After a drug dog alerted to a panel in the vehicle’s floorboard, agents found a hidden compartment with 37 pounds of methamphetamine valued at $578,000, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The meth activity has been linked to the Sinaloa drug cartel, considered one of the most powerful trafficking groups in the world. The cartel has fueled years of warring and violence in Mexico and is thought to be dominating meth distribution in the U.S., according to U.S. and Mexican authorities.
Last month, Mexico’s Federal Police Chief Maribel Cervantes Guerrero said meth production has become an international security issue. She and DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart signed a first-ever U.S.-Mexico cooperation agreement aimed at stamping out the production of meth in clandestine factories on both sides of the border.
“With the majority of methamphetamine in the U.S. being produced by Mexican drug organizations operating on both sides of the border, it is essential for our two countries to target the problem together,” Leonhart said after signing the agreement.