MEXICO CITY — 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.
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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 of precursor chemicals. Another netted 3.4 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 industrial processing lab found buried 12 feet 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, e-mailed 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 in 2008 and 8.27 in 2009. But Mexico went from seizing 0.37 tons in 2008 to 6.72 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.