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Drug Cartels Use Failed States to Traffic in Chemicals

A Pajamas Media exclusive on the worldwide movement of precursor chemicals for meth and other illegal drugs.

by
Todd Bensman

Bio

May 28, 2009 - 12:08 am

Mexico’s drug cartels have displayed a Houdini-like knack for escaping the vise of the ongoing Mexican and American government crackdowns.

Despite bolstered American border defenses, cartel smugglers become ever more inventive and audacious moving their drug loads over. Despite President Felipe Calderon’s best efforts to clean up the corruption in his military and civilian law enforcement services, drug mafia paymasters continue to co-op them at all ranks. This is all old news.

What has yet to be reported anywhere, until now, is that some of Mexico’s most venal drug trafficking organizations, chief among them the Gulf Cartel, have engineered the mother of all end-runs on the crackdowns. It’s an almost unbelievable checkmate strategy that promises to keep the drug mafias rich — and therefore continually able to stave off the good guys.

The Mexican trafficking syndicates have been able to maintain one of their most lucrative activities — producing and shipping over the U.S. border almost all of America’s methamphetamine — by moving operations to the failing states of Africa and off-the-grid, America-hating Muslim countries.

Just try for a minute to imagine Mexican cartel operatives plying the streets of Baghdad outside the Green Zone with their Arabic interpreters. Or Mexicans making connections with robed business prospects in the souks of Damascus and Tehran. There’s nothing imaginary about any of this, according to several recent but completely ignored reports put out earlier this year by the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board. Those reports, as well as interviews I’ve conducted with control board and U.S. Drug Administration officials, expose a zig-zagging international meth pipeline pieced together with sophistication, moxie, and a cunning exploitation of the world’s diplomatic disconnects.

“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, told me in a long telephone call I put in to his office in Austria.

Said one DEA agent: “The amount of money they can make is astronomical.”

Cash-laden Mexican cartel emissaries are trolling the Middle East, securing through artifice and shipping sleight of hand huge tonnage loads of the otherwise tightly regulated raw chemicals that make methamphetamine, pseudoephedrine, and ephedrine. Posing as legitimate pharmaceutical traders operating out of bogus storefront companies in Africa, they strike import deals with chemical companies in Syria, Iran, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. One 40-ton order of ephedrine was interdicted last year just outside of Baghdad, traced to — of all the unlikely things — a Mexican drug cartel.

Once these loads are in cartel hands, they are shipped to embarkation points throughout Africa. The continent offers a most perfect incubator for the cartels.

Most often, the loads are directed to corrupted, failing, and war-savaged nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ghana, and Guinea Bissau. The governments of countries like these lack even the basic administrative capability to check what’s arriving at airports and seaports, let alone any 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 stop here.

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

This all just 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. In June 2008, the Mexicans put the kibosh on these imports, mostly originating from the world’s few manufacturers in China and India. Mexico was being a good world citizen.

But it 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 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, have aggressively policed the pharmaceutical shipments to great effect. Like the proverbial water balloon, every squeeze here sent the chemicals there. When Mexico finally signed on, its drug mafias set out into the world on a mission of discovery. They rather quickly blazed a winding path of least resistance through non-signatory countries — like state sponsors of terror Syria, Sudan, and Iran — that have neither the means nor the will to join the rest of the world.

The Narcotics Control Board only learned about all of this starting in 2007. World governments sent intelligence agents all over the Middle East and Africa in Operation Crystal Flow in 2007 and Operation Ice Block in 2008. The tonnages seized in these operations were enormous, as were those that got through.

I called the DEA recently to learn more about American involvement in these efforts. It turns out the DEA is ramping up its offices in Africa to deal with the problem. It is setting up, for instance, a new station in Accara, Ghana, and beefing up offices in Lagos, Nigeria, Cairo, and South Africa.

Agency officials familiar with the problem, requesting anonymity, told me about huge new seizures that have never been reported anywhere. One nine-ton load of meth-making chemicals bound for Mexico was taken down in Congo. A five-ton load from the Middle East was seized in Kenya.

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

To date, the International Narcotics Control Board reports laying all of this out have fallen on deaf ears.

As long as that’s the case, and as long as the meth money continually enriches Mexico’s cartels, one has to wonder whether the civil drug war besetting Mexico and America can ever be won.

Todd Bensman is an investigative reporter based in San Antonio. He can be reached at todd.bensman@gmail.com.
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