Mexican cartels go global

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Imagine Mexican drug cartel operatives strolling with robed business prospects in the souks of Damascus and Tehran. Or cash-laden Mexican traffickers setting up business offices in African cities like Kinshasa and Accra. Or maybe even Mexican drug syndicate emissaries plying the streets of Baghdad outside the Green Zone.

There’s nothing fictional about any of this. According to recently released reports (and here) from the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board, Mexican drug organizations have gone very far afield to maintain one of their most lucrative activities — producing and shipping over the U.S. border almost all of America’s methamphetamine. They've done it by moving operations to the failing states of Africa and off-the-grid Muslim countries, according to control board and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials.

It's a strategy aimed at keeping drug mafias rich — and therefore strong — while they're under unprecedented fire at home in a military crackdown by President Felipe Calderon, whose strength is bolstered by U.S. cooperation.

“The remarkable thing is that … we have gathered evidence that behind most of these cases involving African and Middle Eastern countries there were Mexican trafficking organizations,” Rossen Popov, chief of the board’s precursors control section, said in a telephone interview from his office in Austria. "The Mexicans are very active around the world. They're quite innovative."

Mexican cartel emissaries are trolling the Middle East, securing huge tonnage loads of the otherwise tightly regulated raw chemicals that make methamphetamine — pseudoephedrine and ephedrine. Posing as legitimate pharmaceutical traders and operating out of bogus storefront companies in Africa, they strike import deals with chemical companies elsewhere. Some of these partners are in Syria, Iran, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

One 40-ton order of ephedrine interdicted last year just outside of Baghdad was traced to — of all unlikely places — a Mexican drug cartel, DEA and control board officials say.

DEA officials closely involved in new interdiction efforts now quietly ramping up in Africa confirmed the trend outlined in the control board reports (the officials weren't authorized to be identified; read the 2007 report). The DEA is currently deploying agents to Africa to begin interdiction efforts. Said one Washington, D.C.-based DEA agent: “The amount of money they make is astronomical.” Investigators have found business offices with chemical company names on exterior doors in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, set up by Mexicans.

Once the loads of raw chemicals are in cartel hands, they are shipped to points throughout Africa. The continent offers a perfect incubator for the cartels.

Most often, the loads are directed to corrupt, failing and war-savaged nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Togo. The governments of countries like these lack even the basic capability to check goods arriving by air and sea, let alone the ability to cooperate in sophisticated international policing operations. Military juntas and their henchmen don’t ask questions — or can be easily satisfied with payoffs.

The trail doesn’t end there.

From Africa, the chemicals are flown or shipped by sea to manufacturing labs in weak and corrupt states in South and Central America, including Peru, Guatemala and Honduras. The pipeline finally empties a finished product into the American heartland, where it can be snorted and injected.

This all started last summer, when the Calderon government discovered that huge quantities of meth-making chemicals were flowing into air and sea ports, 100 tons in excess of the country’s usual needs. (The Los Angeles Times reported in 2007 on a raid on a meth producer in Mexico City, which exposed a multinational drug trade between Asia, the U.S. and Mexico. In the raid, law enforcement officials confiscated more than $200 million.)

In June 2008, the Mexicans put the kibosh on these imports, most of which came from the world’s few manufacturers of such chemicals in China and India.

But Mexico was a latecomer to a global effort to halt the movement of obviously too-large amounts of meth-making chemicals. For much of the past decade, dozens of European and Far East countries, signatories to the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, have aggressively policed the pharmaceutical shipments.

Like the proverbial water balloon, every squeeze sent the chemicals elsewhere. When Mexico finally signed on, its drug mafias quickly blazed a winding path of least resistance through non-signatory countries — such as Syria, Sudan and Iran.

Suddenly, authorities noticed a sharp "excessive" spike in imports of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine by Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, the report says.

Other countries in Latin America are also being used. Last year, for instance, the control board alerted Argentina of "increasingly excessive imports of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine." The same year, Argentinian authorities busted that nation's first meth lab and shut down at least one major import company suspected of involvement in the manufacture of northbound methamphetamine.

World governments have sent agents all over the Middle East and Africa in an effort to quash global meth production — in 2007, there was Operation Crystal Flow, followed by Operation Ice Block in 2008. The tonnages seized in these operations were enormous, as were shipments that got through. Fully half of the 63 tons of chemical shipments identified as suspicious were headed to Mexico, a 2008 report concluded.

To deal with the problem, the DEA is setting up a new station in Accra, Ghana, and is beefing up offices in Lagos, Nigeria, Cairo and South Africa.

Agency officials told GlobalPost about huge new seizures. One 9-ton load of meth-making chemicals bound for Mexico was taken down in Congo. A 5-ton load from the Middle East was seized in Kenya.

“They were definitely linked to a destination in Mexico,” a DEA agent said. “Which means it’s destined for here.”

More on the Mexican drug wars:

Trouble on the US-Mexico border

Meet the drug lords

Sizing up Mexico's war on drugs