Drug Cartels Use Failed States to Traffic in Chemicals

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.