‘El Chapo’ Guzmán’s home turf is becoming a hotbed for synthetic-drug production

Mexico Sinaloa state meth drug lab
Mexican authorities examine materials found in a suspected drug lab in Sinaloa state. Mexican Naval Secretariat

The northwest Mexican state of Sinaloa — where cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was born and lived — has become a focal point of the country’s growing production of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine.

Parts of Sinaloa state, along with areas of Chihuahua and Durango states, make up Mexico’s “Golden Triangle,” an area so-named for intense marijuana and opium cultivation that also take place there.

And the recent rise in synthetic-drug production indicates the continued expansion of Mexican criminal organisations’ presence in the drug trade, likely driven by changing drug-consumption habits in the US.

Drug laboratories discovered in Sinaloa, around the state capital of Culiacan in particular, appear set to double in two years, according to details shared by Rogelio Terán Contreras, commander of the local military zone.

In 2014, 47 labs were discovered, followed by 80 in 2015. Thus far in 2015, authorities have come across 55 such labs, according to official statistics cited by El Universal and noted by Insight Crime.

Since the end of June, Mexican troops have discovered a suspected synthetic-drug lab near Cosalá in Sinaloa, a suspected lab in Culiacan, and another lab about 30 miles outside of Culiacan.

“The principal problem in the jurisdiction is organised crime …,” Terán Contreras told El Universal. “The units of the ninth military zone are bound for, practically, the eradication of the … aspects of of organised crime.”

Mexico meth drug lab
A suspected drug lab discovered in Mexico’s Sinaloa state. Mexican Naval Secretariat

“Mexican traffickers have achieved this booming meth production by adapting their labs, switching recipes, and finding new sources of precursor ingredients,” journalist Ioan Grillo reported in early 2015.

Mexico’s Pacific coast, on which Sinaloa sits, has long been a major production and transit point for drugs, and that dynamic has continued with the growth of synthetic-drug production. Sinaloa and Guerrero state, farther south, are known to be hubs for opium and heroin production.

Sinaloa and Michoacan, another state on coast, have now become the sites of superlabs for synthetic-drug production. A report earlier this year from the International Narcotics Control Board found that 131 such labs were dismantled in 2014, the majority of them located in Guerrero, Sinaloa, and Michoacan.

“As well as running some big labs, the crime syndicates now often cook meth — known here as ‘hielo’ (ice) — in clusters of small labs scattered over hills and valleys,” Grillo reported in January 2015. “Traffickers with capital buy raw ingredients in bulk, then subcontract producers … to do the dirty work.”

One such producer who spoke with Grillo said the workers who cook the meth will set up makeshift labs of plastic barrels and generators in secluded areas, packing the final product into plastic containers.

Ports up and down the Pacific shore are believed to be arrival points for the precursor chemicals needed to make synthetic drugs and departure points for the finished product. According to the INCB report, Mexico is a source country for crystal meth found in East and Southeast Asia and throughout Oceania — regions no doubt served by shipments from Mexico’s western coast.

“Historically the states of Sinaloa, Colima, to a lesser extent Nayarit, but also Guerrero … historically maritime smuggling in these areas has always been important,” David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego, told Business Insider this summer. “And the physical infrastructure and transportation infrastructure from the coast to the center of Mexico, to Mexico City importantly, is vital to all kind of trade, including illicit trade.”

DEA Map cartel territory in Mexico
A map of suspected areas of influence for Mexico’s drug cartels. DEA 2015 NDTA

Competition over ports in this area has driven up violence, particularly in Guerrero and Colima states, both of which currently have homicide rates many times higher than the national average.

Two major cartels, the Jalisco New Generation cartel and Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, are suspected of causing most of that violence. Those two organisations, along with various other regional criminal groups, are believed to be clashing up and down Mexico’s west coast, including in Guerrero state (Acapulco in particular), Colima state, and in both Baja California Sur and Baja California, especially in Tijuana.

The Jalisco and Sinaloa cartel are believed to dominate the crystal-meth market in the US, with the Jalisco group gaining a boost from local expertise and from knowledge it took with it when it split from Sinaloa in about 2010.

“They have a Ph.D. in drug trafficking thanks to the education provided by the Sinaloa cartel and other cartels,” Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Reuters of the Jalisco cartel.

Meth ‘availability will continue to increase’

The proliferation of drug laboratories has created a significant strain on Mexican authorities’ resources.

Investigative work and the dismantling of each lab can cost the Mexican attorney general’s office about $50,000 to $100,000, and the manpower needed to take apart the labs pulls soldiers away from other duties for as long as three months. This distraction comes as production of other drugs in Sinaloa appears to be rising, too, with 5,300 poppy plantations seized so far this year, up from 1,070 seized during 2014.

As noted by Insight Crime, Mexican criminal organisations operating in these areas have likely intensified production of opium and synthetic drugs to compensate for falling revenue from marijuana, demand for which is believed to have fallen with the spread of legal marijuana in the US.

“Methamphetamine in the United States originates primarily from clandestine laboratories in Mexico and is smuggled across the Southwest Border,” the US Drug Enforcement Administration noted in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment.

Meth seizures at the US border Mexico
Meth seizures were up all along the US border in 2014. DEA 2015 NDTA

“Methamphetamine availability will continue to increase as Mexican TCOs have adapted to restrictions placed on precursor chemicals and are able to continue producing large amounts of high-purity, high-potency methamphetamine,” the DEA added.

“The increase in heroin abuse in the US is creating a significant surge of opium and heroin production by criminal groups in Mexico,” Vigil told Business Insider earlier this year.

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