Here's How America's Love Of Methamphetamine Helped Create The Hellish Mexican Drug War

breaking bad

Photo: AMC

Breaking Bad returns to the TV screens this Sunday, giving legions of fans a chance to catch another glimpse of Walter White’s growing methamphetamine empire.However, no matter what how far Walter descends, it may be difficult for it to truly capture the hellish situation that methamphetamine has helped created in Mexico. South of the border there’s an ongoing war between cartels, police and the army that has resulted in the deaths of thousands — and America’s love of methamphetamine plays a direct role in it.

America’s Relationship With Meth
Amphetamines have an interesting history in America. They were first formulated in the turn of the 20th century, and first medically used in the 1930s.

In the 1950s and 60s there was growing concern about widespread recreational use of both amphetamine and methamphetamine (use amongst “Speed Freaks” was said to be as widespread as marijuana), and both were made Schedule II substances in 1970, which put strict restrictions on their sale and usage.

According to “Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned”, a report to the National Institute of Justice published in February 2006, the drug first begun to reappear in the Hawaii and the West in the 1980s, manufactured by motorcycle gangs with simple methods.

While usage figures are hard to come by, these charts from “Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned” appear to show that the drug enjoyed a huge increase in popularity in the US in the 1990s:

Meth Usage Chart
Meth Usage Chart

It’s believed that meth use declined dramatically around 2005, but the US National Drug Threat Assessment 2011 found that “rates of methamphetamine abuse appear to be increasing” — in part because of the increasing scale and sophistication of Mexican production. One recent UN report found that the drug was now the second most common drug worldwide.

Why Meth Is So Attractive To The Cartels
Criminal organisations in Mexico have long been involved in the drug trade, but traditionally played second fiddle to the Colombian cartels, as they lacked the natural resources that enabled South American drug producers to cultivate crops for heroin and cocaine.

US intervention in Colombia has gradually led to the South American cartels losing influence, but another factor in the Mexican cartels rise is the method in which methamphetamine is made — as a synthetic drug, it is made indoors, and doesn’t require a certain type of climate.

In an article on the Mexican drug trade for the New Yorker, William Finnegen writes that the country’s meth trade got a huge boost in the 1990s as US law enforcement clamped down on labs north of the border. Soon Mexican cartels, who had previously worked mostly in trafficking drugs from producers in other countries, were setting up their own industrial scale labs that operated in a scale that would be impossible in the US (unless you are Walter White, obviously). A 2007 report from the DEA found 80% of methamphetamine found in the US came from “larger laboratories operated by Mexican-based syndicates on both sides of the border.”

The drug is believed to be one of the most profitable, with reports that it is more profitable than cocaine, the substance that made Pablo Escobar one of the richest people on earth in the early 1990s.

The Result
With those big profits, comes big competition. The Sinaloa cartel moved into meth production in the 1990s, Finnegen writes, and the notoriously bloody Zeta cartel — smelling a profit — later began a series of hostile takeovers of meth labs.

The end result of more competition is more bodies —Mexico’s drug violence is thought to have killed 50,000 people  in the last six years.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.