Mexico's most powerful drug cartel appears to be expanding methamphetamine production on a massive scale, filling a gap left by the breakdown of a rival gang that was once the top trafficker of the synthetic drug.
The globe-spanning Sinaloa cartel is suspected of dealing record tons of drugs as well as the chemicals that are used to make meth, known as precursor chemicals, which are processed in industrial-sized operations.
The apparent increase in the Sinaloa group's involvement comes as the Mexican government says it has dismantled the La Familia gang with key arrests and killings of its leadership. It also coincides with U.S. drug intelligence reports showing that Mexico is once again the primary source of meth to the United States.
Methamphetamine production, gauged by seizures of labs and drugs in Mexico, has increased dramatically since 2008.
Mexican authorities have made two major busts in as many months in the quiet central state of Queretaro. In one case, they seized nearly 500 tons (450 metric tons) of precursor chemicals. Another netted 3.4 tons (3.1 metric tons) of pure meth, which at $15,000 a pound would have a street value of more than $100 million.
Authorities said they couldn't put a value on the precursors, which were likely headed for a 300-foot-long (100-meter-long) industrial processing lab found buried 12 feet (4 meters) underground in a farm field in the cartel's home, the northwestern state of Sinaloa.
"We think it was Sinaloa," said a U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico, referring to the cartel. He said the cartel can piggyback meth onto the network it already has for cocaine, heroin and marijuana.
"They may now have this renewed interest in trying to control a bigger portion of the meth market," the official said. "Although La Familia has distribution points in the U.S. ... they don't have the distribution network that the Sinaloa cartel has."
The official could not be named for security reasons.
Steve Preisler, an industrial chemist who wrote the book "Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture" and is sometimes called the father of modern meth-making, said "the quantity is just amazing."
"It is a huge amount of starting material which would allow them to dominate the world market," Preisler, who served 3 1/2 years in prison more than two decades ago, emailed The Associated Press in reply to questions. He added that the most efficient production methods would yield about half the weight of the precursors in uncut meth, or between 200 and 250 tons, which could be worth billions of dollars.
Officials of Mexico's federal police, army and Attorney General's Office refused to comment on who owned the meth lab or precursor warehouses.
Meth availability in the U.S. has rebounded since a drop in 2007 and is directly related to production in Mexico, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Meth seizures remained roughly level in the U.S. at 8.16 tons (7.4 metric tons) in 2008 and 8.27 (7.5 metric tons) in 2009. But Mexico went from seizing 0.37 tons (0.34 metric tons) in 2008 to 6.72 tons (6.1 metric tons) in 2009, the U.N report said.
Mexican meth seizure figures for 2010 are not yet published, but the U.S. official said they almost certainly rose over those of 2009.
Authorities seized 200 tons of precursor chemicals in the Pacific seaport of Manzanillo last year, a raid that the Attorney General's Office described at the time as the largest in Mexican history. The Queretaro seizure last month was double that.
Seizures of methamphetamine laboratories also have increased dramatically, according to the U.S. State Department's 2011 International Narcotics Control Report. The number of methamphetamine labs seized by Mexican authorities jumped from 57 in 2008 to 217 in 2009, and the number of busts remained almost as high in early 2010. The volume "suggests that it is not solely for U.S. and domestic consumption," the report said.
The Mexican government says its offensive against La Familia, a pseudo-religious gang based in the western state of Michoacan that was once the country's main meth producer, is one of the key successes in its crackdown on organized crime and drug trafficking. Founder Nazario Moreno Gonzalez was killed in a two-day shootout with federal police in December. His right-hand man, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, who allegedly ran the meth operations, was arrested in June.
But the U.S. official said other gangs are now trying to fill the void.
The Sinaloa cartel, headed by fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, tends to think big: In mid-July, Mexican soldiers found a 300-acre (120-hectare) marijuana field in the western state of Baja California, the biggest such plantation in the country's history. The army said laborers working for the Sinaloa cartel planted thousands of plants under vast swaths of shade cloth and irrigated and fertilized them.
But nobody was prepared for the size of the meth network officials found in industry-heavy Queretaro, one of Mexico's safest states in terms of drug violence. The two seizures were related, the U.S. official said, and came out of the arrest of a local meth distributor months ago.
When soldiers raided three interconnected warehouses on June 15, they thought they had found 1,462 50-gallon (190-liter) drums filled with various precursors. But when experts examined the stash, they found 3.4 tons (3.1 metric tons) of pure meth.
Last month, soldiers discovered another warehouse at an industrial park piled with 330 tons (300 metric tons) of solid phenylacetamide and the equivalent of about 150 tons of liquid methyl phenylacetate.
Used in an old type of meth production known as "P2P," the ingredients are easier to smuggle, or to make from other substances that aren't specifically banned. Such precursors have become more prevalent since Mexico outlawed meth's main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, in 2007.
Authorities say the P2P method produces a less-potent drug. But the 2011 World Drug Report released in June by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted that the sheer quantity of meth the Mexican cartels are producing allows them to offer it in purer form.
Soldiers found a sophisticated underground meth lab near Sinaloa's coastal city of Mazatlan on June 26. The two-story structure had an elevator and ventilation systems, cooking and sleeping facilities. The house-sized, underground complex was reachable only by a 30-yard (meter) long tunnel, the opening disguised under a tractor shed.
The U.S. official said the warehouse in Queretaro raided in July was apparently meant to supply the underground lab in Sinaloa.
Some speculate that the Sinaloa cartel is trying to reach even beyond the United States. Police in Malaysia arrested three Mexican brothers in March 2008 at a secluded meth factory along with a Singaporean and a Malaysian, and seized more than 60 pounds (nearly 30 kilograms) of methamphetamine.
While the U.S. official wouldn't say that the men belonged to the Sinaloa cartel, he noted they were from Sinaloa state.
"Were they over there showing people how to cook meth? ... Or was it a test for Sinaloa, a test of the capability of expanding the market to that part of the world?" he asked.
Such an Asian connection would be a natural link for the cartel, since most of Mexico's precursor chemicals come from the region.