Mexican drug cartels stymied by a crackdown in their own country may have tried to ship a quarter-ton of a drug-making chemical through Los Angeles International Airport, a U.S. customs spokesman said Thursday.
Eight drums containing 520 pounds of powdered methylamine hydrochloride were seized on Aug. 12 at an air cargo consignment facility.
The highly restricted substance can have legitimate uses such as making pesticides, solvents and pharmaceuticals, but it's also a precursor for creating methamphetamine and the party drug Ecstasy, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jaime Ruiz said.
Theoretically, the chemical could have produced 330 pounds of methamphetamine, he said.
The cargo arrived from China and was supposed to be shipped to a company in central Mexico. The amount of the chemical, its origin, destination and lack of proper documentation aroused suspicion.
"Are the Mexican cartels now using LAX? That's the big question," Ruiz said. "We don't know. But this is an indication that someone, somewhere in central Mexico was trying import this stuff from China without any documents."
No arrests were made, but Mexican authorities were notified, he said.
Mexico is the main source of methamphetamine in the United States. The drug has also become a scourge in Mexico's northern border cities like Tijuana, across from San Diego, and Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.
Production in Mexico fell in 2007 and 2008 after its government began to limit the availability of precursor chemicals, according to the U.S. Justice Department's 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment. By late 2008, Mexican cartels began using new chemicals and establishing new smuggling routes from outside to Mexico to get ingredients.
Mexican cartels began smuggling ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from China and India, using routes through Africa, Europe and South America, the report said. They also slap incorrect labels on chemicals to avoid being detected at Mexican border crossings.
"We strongly believe that the cartels are getting frustrated on the southwest border and are trying to use other routes" to obtain drug precursors, Ruiz said.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.