Mexico's powerful Sinaloa drug cartel appears to be extending its massive production of methamphetamine into neighboring Guatemala, as hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals stream into the Central American nation.
While Mexico is usually estimated to be the main supplier of meth used in the United States, seizure data suggest that neighboring Guatemala could in fact be producing as much or more.
That data, along with interviews with U.S. and Guatemalan officials, also indicate that Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is taking advantage of Guatemala's remote, isolated mountains and an alliance with a key Guatemalan trafficker to make the Central American nation a new international meth production base.
Mexican authorities seized 675 tons of a key precursor chemical in December alone, and all of it was heading for Guatemala. Officials in Guatemala, meanwhile, have seized 7,847 barrels of precursors in 2011, equivalent to about 1,600 tons and far more than Mexico's total seizures of 1,200 tons in the same year.
The Guatemala-bound chemical seized in Mexico, methylamine, can yield its weight in uncut meth, according to Steve Preisler, an industrial chemist called the father of modern meth-making.
That means the total amount seized in or heading to Guatemala could theoretically produce more than a billion one-gram doses of pure meth, and billions more if cut to street-level purity.
Authorities say it's not entirely clear where Sinaloa could sell thousands of tons of methamphetamine, if it produced that much. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in its 2011 World Report that total meth seizures worldwide amounted to 65 tons.
But there are many signs pointing to the Sinaloa cartel's involvement in an extensive chain of meth production and distribution. The gang has already moved into industrial-scale meth production in Mexico. And after several big labs in Mexico were raided, the cartel may feel more comfortable operating in Guatemala.
"Sinaloa is the main group down there that is producing meth," said a senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico City, who could not be quoted by name for security reasons.
Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said the Mexican cartel has prepared its operations by doing business with a gang in his country led by Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, nicknamed "Chamale," who, before his arrest in March, was identified by the United States as the most important trafficker in Guatemala.
"What we have found is that Chamale has links to the Sinaloa cartel," Menocal told The Associated Press. Those links include coordinating the processing or "cooking" of meth, he said.
"An analysis by Guatemala's intelligence indicates the laboratories were managed by Mexicans," Menocal said. "They come to oversee the drug production process; Mexican chemists came to establish the formulas and local people talk about Mexicans who came and went, doing this work."
The U.N. drug office's regional representative, Antonio Mazzitelli, said the increased seizures in Mexico and Central America may largely reflect more vigilance by authorities.
"Maybe the amount coming in hasn't changed," the U.S. official said, "but now they've identified the problem and they're going after it and so now we're seeing the seizures go up."
Either way, evidence points to the Sinaloa connection: Five huge shipments of methylamine seized in December were found at Mexican ports that authorities believe are used by the Sinaloa cartel, and all were bound, according to shipping papers, for the Guatemala port of Puerto Quetzal.
Guatemalan authorities said they discovered two meth laboratories in western Guatemala, near the border with Mexico, where they found traces of phenylacetone, a chemical that, in one production method is combined with methylamine to produce meth.
The approximately 1,600 tons of precursors Guatemala seized in 2011 compare with only about 400 tons seized there in 2010.
Preisler wrote in an email message that "roughly one part by weight methylamine would react with one part by weight phenylacetone to produce a little over one part by weight of pure meth."
Few people use pure meth, and street cuts can be three or even five parts filler, so 2,200 tons of methylamine seized in the two countries could produce some 6.6 billion cut doses. At $100 per gram, that could net hundreds of billions of dollars on the street.