Mexican soldiers on Thursday seized more than 13.6 tonnes of methamphetamine and other substances used to manufacture illegal drugs from a farm in western Mexico, officials said.
The confiscated drugs represent the biggest seizure in the country’s more than five-year war against drug cartels, according to the army.
The operation resulted from an inspection of the farm by army troops in the town of Tlajomulco de Zuniga, where police report the Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels have been active recently.
The drug bust came shortly after the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported Mexican cartels increasingly are producing synthetic drugs instead of cocaine.
General Gilberto Hernandez, commander of Mexico’s 15th Army Military Zone, called the drug seizure “historic” during a press conference, where he showed the seized items to the media.
Authorities did not say which cartel owned the laboratory where the drugs and supplies were seized. No arrests were reported.
The complex, which was estimated to employ about a dozen people, was equipped with modern equipment such as 15 metal reactors, 12 gas tanks, nine cylinders of oxygen and nine thermostats, Hernandez said.
In addition to methamphetamine, the soldiers confiscated 4,575 liters of precursor chemicals and 2,400kg of caustic soda.
Illegal drug territory rights in the state of Jalisco, where the laboratory was found, have been hotly contested recently between the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and his rivals in Los Zetas, a cartel organized by military deserters.
Guzman is considered Mexico’s most powerful drug lord.
Synthetic drugs are attractive to cartels because they can be manufactured anywhere the chemical ingredients are available, said Antonio Mazzitelli, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
The Sinaloa cartel is equipped to produce and distribute drugs “for the global village,” Mazzitelli said.
Unlike cocaine, which must be imported from South America, synthetic drug laboratories can be set up in areas of Mexico that allow easy access to the US, he said.
“Such large-scale production could suggest an expansion ... into Latin American and Asian markets,” Mazzitelli said.
The seizure, equal to half of all meth seizures worldwide in 2009, feeds growing speculation that the country could become a world platform for meth production, not just a supplier to the US.
Meanwhile, meth use is growing in the US, already the world’s biggest market for illicit drugs.
The seizure of such a large quantity of meth is expected to have a big impact on the US meth market.
The haul could have supplied 13 million doses worth more than US$4 billion on US streets.
However, Mazzitelli also said: “It may be a product that hasn’t been able to be sold, and like any business, when the market is depressed, stockpiles build up.”
Tom Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force, believes the seizure could have a big impact in his state. Tennessee led the nation in clandestine meth lab busts in 2010 with 2,082, but the majority of meth in the state comes from Mexico.
Farmer said the Mexican meth is often made without pseudoephedrine, an ingredient commonly found in cold and allergy pills, which has been banned in Mexico and restricted in the US. Most meth made in clandestine US labs is made with pseudoephedrine, making it a more powerful high, he said.