Mexican Cartels Expand Meth Dealing in U.S.

Nov. 15, 2006 — -- Mexican drug-trafficking cartels have moved in to fill the void left by the successful crackdown on small methamphetamine labs across the United States, and the foreign traffickers have brought the highly addictive drug into parts of the country where it was rarely seen before, according to a new report by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

According to Health and Human Services data, drug use is down over the last four years, but a new report says that Mexican drug trafficking organizations, or DTOs, have gained strength in the United States and that heroin usage has increased among some drug addicts.

DEA officials believe that five main Mexican drug cartels have increased operations in the United States.

Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have "gained considerable strength and greatly expanded their presence in drug markets throughout the country, even in many smaller communities in Midwestern and Eastern states," said the report, which was released today.

Because the ingredients for making meth were easily obtainable, small makeshift meth labs sprang up across the country, feeding much of the surge in meth use since the early 1990s. But when states started passing laws limiting access to some of the key ingredients, such as pseudoephedrine, many of those mom-and-pop labs closed.

The federal government followed suit when Congress tacked a meth provision onto the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act that limits the amount of pseudoephedrine people can buy at pharmacies.

According to the DEA, since 2004 there have been fewer U.S.-based labs, judging from the DEA's seizure data.

"We've had a significant reduction in domestic labs, with Mexican DTOs filling the void," one DEA official, who requested anonymity, told ABC News.

The spread of methamphetamine can be seen in cities such as Atlanta, which has had several high-yield busts in recent months. In August, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta announced the largest meth seizure in Georgia's history, which removed as much as $50 million worth of meth from the streets.

The Mexican cartels were behind the deals, and the DEA believes they have been trying to use Atlanta as a hub for trafficking.

"We've never seen meth on the eastern seaboard … in those quantities," the DEA official said.

National Drug Intelligence Center spokesman Charles Miller said the Mexican drug-trafficking networks have been able to gain influence for several reasons, including their access to the precursor chemicals needed to make high-quality methamphetamine.

Many of these chemicals, including large quantities of the cold medicine pseudoephedrine, come from Asia.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, the Mexican groups have been able to use their traditional trafficking networks for cocaine and marijuana to distribute the methamphetamine, which is made in so-called superlabs -- large production facilities in Mexico.

DEA officials said they have seen evidence of the Mexican groups increasing their activity in meth distribution, with increased meth seizures at the southern border.

In 2004, DEA data showed that 2,420 kilos of meth where seized at the southern U.S. border. In 2005, seizures had increased to 2,750 kilos.

Although casual use of methamphetamine appears to be stable, the report said there is an increase in the number of meth-related treatment admissions and methamphetamine-dependent individuals nationwide. In 2004, 129,079 were admitted to treatment facilities for meth treatment, compared with 82,113 in 2001.

Meth is not the only area in which the Mexican groups have increased the business opportunities.

The threat assessment notes that the Mexican groups have the "ability to advance Mexican heroin beyond traditional Western state heroin markets."

The report said this "presents new challenges to law enforcement as more groups make the drug consistently available to individuals even in smaller, more rural Eastern communities."

The assessment also found that heroin use has increased among some drug addicts who abuse prescription painkillers. The report found that prescription narcotic abusers have switched to heroin.

"Law enforcement reporting indicates that abusers of pharmaceutical opioids, primarily OxyContin and methadone, but other drugs as well, have switched and continue to switch to heroin, particularly when heroin is more available and cheaper," according to the report.

The report said this trend has been seen in California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

To combat the influence of the Mexican networks, the DEA has engaged in a series of training programs with Mexican law enforcement agencies to try to dismantle their networks.