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Methamphetamine Traffickers in Mexico Become Global Wholesalers

After a long day of work in the highlands, a coordinator for several clandestine methamphetamine and fentanyl laboratories in the Mexican state of Sinaloa climbed to the top of a mountain to get a cell phone signal.

It was around nine o’clock at night, in early March. A few minutes after arriving, the coordinator received a call from an acquaintance in the city of Culiacán, the state capital. Also on the call was an InSight Crime team member. 

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After a lengthy day of work in the mountainous areas, a person in charge of multiple secret methamphetamine and fentanyl labs in the Mexican state of Sinaloa hiked up a mountain to get a cell phone signal.

It was about nine o’clock in the evening, in early March. Shortly after arriving, the person got a call from someone they knew in the city of Culiacán, the state capital. Also on the call was a team member from InSight Crime.

This was the second time InSight Crime had spoken to this person. Previously, he had explained that he worked for various drug production and trafficking networks associated with the Chapitos and Ismael Zambada García, also known as “El Mayo,” two of the main factions of the Sinaloa Cartel. In addition to his administrative duties, the person’s role involves keeping in touch with synthetic drug buyers abroad.

During interruptions caused by a poor signal and sounds of motorcycle, he shared his views on trends in global methamphetamine trafficking.

“The objective is to distribute crystal [methamphetamine] all around the world. That’s what’s happening,” he said.

He was talking about the ambition of Mexican trafficking networks to expand their customer base beyond the United States in search of better prices. Several methamphetamine producers and wholesalers interviewed by InSight Crime over the past two years have also mentioned this goal.

Size and Scope of the Meth Industry in Mexico

Their efforts to try to get Mexican methamphetamine into new markets have attracted the attention of international authorities, particularly over the last decade. And in the last seven months, there have been record seizures in Europe and Asia.

For instance, in early February, Irish police seized seized half a ton of the drug in the port of Cork and linked the shipment to networks associated with the Sinaloa Cartel, according to press reports. Four months earlier, in October 2023, Hong Kong customs authorities made the largest seizure of solid methamphetamine in the island’s history, finding 1.1 tons from Mexico.

In Search of More Profitable Markets

Expanding into new markets is a strategic financial move. Production costs per kilogram of methamphetamine can be as high as $1,000, to which must be added transportation costs, bribes, and the occasional fees paid to criminal groups along the route, according to the person and other methamphetamine producers interviewed by InSight Crime in Sinaloa and Michoacán.

Profits in Mexico and the United States are barely enough to cover this investment. On average, a kilogram of wholesale methamphetamine sells for $600 in Mexico and $5,000 in the United States, according to the same sources.

“We need to look for new markets to offset all the costs,” a methamphetamine producer in Michoacán told InSight Crime in December 2022.

Europe and Oceania offer an opportunity for higher profits. Although transport costs increase, the same amount of methamphetamine can be worth an average of $20,000 in European countries and up to $190,000 in Australia and New Zealand, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

Because there is a possibility of making a lot of money, authorities in Australia and New Zealand have started seeing a large amount of methamphetamine coming from Mexico since 2018.

Greg Williams, who is the director of the New Zealand Police’s national organized crime task force, explained in a press release on February 13 that organized crime groups from Mexico are regularly targeting New Zealand. They bring illegal drugs into the country, set up ways to sell them locally, and then take their profits out of the country. said This information was mentioned in a press release on February 13.

Anthea McCarthy-Jones, who is an expert on organized crime and a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, said to InSight Crime that drugs in Australia are very expensive compared to other places. Because of this, it's very appealing for these groups to pay more attention to this market.

Methamphetamine Gets Moved Through Important Ports All Over the World

The person in charge of a lab in Sinaloa explained that methamphetamine sent to Europe and Oceania is often transported through sea or air routes, hidden among legal products that are commonly traded.

In recent cases, Mexican traffickers have hidden methamphetamine in shipments of coconut water, steel, seashells, hydraulic presses, and even in packages labeled as belonging to the Mexican government. seals.

To reduce the chance of being caught, traffickers often use ports and airports that have a lot of cargo moving through them. As a result, it's not surprising that European ports like Rotterdam, Valencia, Hamburg, and Cork, as well as the international airport of Amsterdam-Schipol, have discovered large amounts of methamphetamine from Mexico in the past.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport Becoming Arrival Point for Mexican Drugs

The port of Hong Kong has also become an important location on the way to Asia and Oceania. It gets products from around the world, and almost all the shipping companies that connect the Mexican ports of Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas, which are close to where drugs are made, with Asia, pass through that area. key point Hong Kong authorities have seen more methamphetamine seizures since at least 2020. The shipments from Mexico have been the most common source of these seizures.

However, the routes are not always straightforward. The lab coordinator mentioned that long and complicated routes can be helpful in tricking the authorities.

Recent investigations by journalists have confirmed this. For example, in January 2024, the Canadian media outlet the Vancouver Sun reported that the port of Vancouver was used as a stopover to send methamphetamine from Mexico to Australia, going through Canada.

Criminal Competition found Although they are increasing their international trade, Mexican traffickers are still in the early stages of getting involved in the European and Oceanian drug markets.

Unlike in the United States, where they have access to most of the market, in Europe and Oceania, Mexican groups have to work together and compete with different organizations from various countries that have already set up strong ways to supply drugs and relationships with customers over the years.

The Sinaloa lab coordinator mentioned at the end of the call that Mexican networks just sell the drugs in bulk to different family groups or gangs on these continents, who then take care of distributing the drugs in their regions. He didn't say which specific criminal organizations he was collaborating with abroad.

This concept aligns with McCarthy-Jones’ study in Australia. She stated that criminal groups in the Golden Triangle, a hub of drug production in Southeast Asia, continue to be the primary providers of methamphetamine there.

“[Mexican criminal groups] act as wholesalers,” she explained. “I believe they are possibly competing with each other. And I think the Mexicans are trying to expand their market share.”

According to McCarthy-Jones, Mexican traffickers have mainly depended on intermediaries to connect with Australian and New Zealand distributors, maintaining a certain distance. These middlemen are often familiar with the local situation and handle the logistics and contacts on behalf of the Mexicans.

“They are crucial in terms of protection and security … to safeguard your own organization from law enforcement efforts,” she added.

The situation is similar in Europe. Although authorities have discovered significant seizures of Mexican methamphetamine, links to European organizations also

seem limited to

the use of intermediaries or messengers. “There is a large supply of methamphetamine directly from Mexico to Europe. We haven’t seen any major cases recently,” Andrew Cunningham, director of drug markets, crime and supply reduction at EMCDDA told InSight Crime. Cunningham stated that the involvement of Mexican organizations in European markets may vary by country. The most significant engagement has been observed in Spain, where the Beltran Leyva Organization (

) was connected to a 1.6 ton delivery of methamphetamine in 2019.

However, most of the shipments intercepted in Europe are likely en route to other non-European countries, rather than intended for local consumption, according to a 2022BLOby the EMCDDA and a joint

of the same year by Europol and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). report Meanwhile, local methamphetamine production and distribution seems to continue to be controlled by local criminal groups. report *Parker Asmann, Peter Appleby, and Douwe Den Held contributed to this article. Miguel Angel Vega contributed with field work.

After a long day of work in the highlands, a coordinator for multiple secret methamphetamine and fentanyl labs in the Mexican state of Sinaloa climbed to the top of a mountain to get a cell phone signal.

It was around nine o’clock at night, in early March. A few minutes after arriving, the coordinator received a call from an acquaintance in the city of Culiacán, the state capital. Also on the call was an InSight Crime team member.

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