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Mexican cartels go global

Drug organizations have been moving operations to countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Soldiers stand next to cash seized by Mexico's army that is on display for the media in Mexico City Sept. 18, 2008. (Reuters)

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.