A U.N. anti-narcotics agency cited a worrisome rise in shipments of increasingly pure Mexican heroin to the United States, and said in a report Wednesday that Mexican cartels are an increasing threat in Central America.
The International Narcotics Control Board says Mexican cartels are displacing Colombian traffickers, the traditional suppliers of much of the heroin consumed in the United States, and opium poppy production is on the rise in Mexico, said board member Jorge Montano.
Montano told a news conference said that as much as 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of opium poppies in Mexico "are basically intended for the United States."
The rise also had been noted by the U.S. Justice Department, which said in a 2010 report that Mexican cartels had more than doubled their heroin production in the preceding year.
Mexico had long been a transit route for processed Colombian heroin, while Mexican production remained mostly semi-processed paste or 'tar.'
But the board said "there are some indications that 'white heroin' of greater purity is being illegally produced in Mexico" and sometimes mixed with Colombian heroin.
The Mexican government recently released figures showing that poppy eradication in Mexico has fallen dramatically since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels in December 2006.
While the government destroyed 21,600 hectares of poppies in 2005 and 16,900 hectares in 2006, that fell to 11,400 in 2007.
The Mexican army, which does most of the country's eradication work, apparently has shifted its efforts to other activities, such as raiding gang strongholds, patrolling cities and manning checkpoints.
Federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire said eradication is again increasing, reaching 13,200 hectares in 2008 and 14,800 in 2009, the last year for which figures are available.
But Montano said heroin production has been shifting toward Mexico "because the Colombians were very effective in 2008 in eliminating a large number of hectares" of poppy fields.
The report also said that 90 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. flows through Mexico, though Mexican cartels get most of their money from marijuana sales: $8.5 billion annually, or 61 percent of their estimated annual income.
Mexican cartels are flexing their muscles in other ways, as well.
After Mexico cracked down on imports of precursor chemicals used to make methamphetamines in 2007, the cartels began importing them through Central America, often from front companies in Bangladesh.
He said sophisticated labs at Mexican seaports are better at detecting disguised shipments than those in other countries. Once on land, it is easier to move them across borders.
The report also said that the street value of drugs moving through the Caribbean region at any time is larger than the legitimate economy, though it did not say how it determined that.
The board said Brazil is increasingly used as a route for shipping South American cocaine to West Africa, and it criticized the Bolivian government for a lack of action in combating production of coca, the raw material of cocaine.
President Evo Morales, a former coca growers union leader who expelled U.S. drug agents three years ago, has promoted traditional uses of coca leaf while professing zero tolerance for cocaine trafficking.
But the INCB cited a report from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime noting that Bolivia's overall coca cultivation had increased 1 percent in 2009 over the previous year, to 119 square miles (308 square kilometers). INCB said that was enough land to allow for the harvest of 40,200 tons of coca leaves _ the largest amount in Bolivia since 1998.
"Those developments could increase the risk of coca leaf being diverted for use in the illicit manufacture of cocaine," the report stated.
In Brazil, drug traffickers are increasingly using the country's northeast to smuggle "a significant portion of cocaine from Bolivia, Colombia and Peru," the report found.
The INCB's report recognized Brazil's efforts to curb this trade, but called upon the government "to further intensify its efforts in this regard."
Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja and Bradley Brooks contributed to this report from Brazil.