BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Border seizures of methamphetamine are surging after years of decline, indicating that the drug once seen as a poor man's cocaine drummed up in backwoods U.S. kitchens is becoming a key export of Mexican drug traffickers.
The seizures soared in 2009 and are on pace for a record year in 2010.
They range from the 340-pound, $5.1 million batch discovered in a truckload of carrots coming across the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge to $26,000 worth seized from the car of a Houston teenager driving from Matamoros, Mexico.
The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates the vast majority of all U.S. meth seized now originates in Mexico, with increasing amounts of it hauled up Texas highways to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the newest superhub for Southeastern U.S. distribution.
Is meth still a hot drug? Absolutely, said Wendell Campbell, a DEA spokesman in Houston. Despite the documentaries and educational materials, meth is still being used.
The south-of-the-border shift in production was the predictable outcome of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which banned over-the-counter sales of cold medicines containing the meth ingredient pseudoephedrine and required stores to keep data about purchasers.
The year before it was enacted, 6,105 U.S. labs were busted. The year after, the number dropped to 3,977.
But by then, Mexican cartels were picking up the trade.
More pseudoephedrine was being imported into Mexico than could possibly be used to treat the nation's colds, and news accounts reported the hijacking of a train from a Pacific port believed to be carrying the ingredient.
Cartels operated meth "superlabs" that churned out some 30 pounds a day.
The CMEA followed several statewide statutes, with Oklahoma's 2004 pseudoephedrine control law considered the landmark. Texas passed a law in 2005.
Mexico enacted its own crackdown against pseudoephedrine but production continued, in part thanks to a shift toward an older recipe known as "P2P."
Decades-old crackdowns had made it difficult to get the foul-smelling phenylacetic acid used for that method in the United States. Not so in Mexico.
The drug is popular among drug cartels because as a synthetic, meth isn't subject to harvest swings or crop destruction by law enforcement.
Those who control local trafficking "plazas" take their cut in the form of taxes, or "pisos," on loads passing through.
Like cocaine, a little goes a long way, but cocaine prices have spiked, perhaps because of supply shortages, and meth may be seen as a substitute by the less choosy.
A.F.O (Arellano-Felix Organization), Sinaloa, Juarez Cartel, La Familia (are) heavily into meth.
The Gulf as well. And the Zetas, Campbell said, ticking off the bigger Mexican drug cartels.
All of them can get their hand into it. It just depends on what the need is at the time … They're all equal-opportunity shippers of that dope across the border.
Border Patrol meth seizures on the Southwest border, which spiked in 2004 with 976 pounds, dropped to 340 pounds in 2007. But they rose to 951 pounds in 2009.
As of May 3, seven months into the current fiscal year, the patrol seized some 559 pounds — and that doesn't include the carrot load.
DEA statistics, which include the take by Customs officers at ports of entry, show a jump from 4,092 pounds in 2007 to 7,649 pounds in 2009.