CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Thanks to tougher U.S. laws, fewer people are cooking up batches of methamphetamine in dangerous homemade labs, but that doesn't mean the supply has dried up. Eighty percent or more of America's supply of the drug now comes from Mexico, law-enforcement officials say.
That means U.S. drug agents are changing how they fight this particular drug war — looking to stop Mexican traffickers on interstate highways instead of raiding small-time meth labs in kitchens and backyard sheds.
"These people are not involved to satisfy their own drug habits," U.S. Attorney Russ Dedrick of Knoxville said. "They are involved for money."
State and federal laws that restrict purchases of the decongestant pseudoephedrine — a key ingredient in making the addictive stimulant — have sharply reduced rural, clandestine labs.
Records provided by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) show there were 7,347 meth lab reports nationwide last year, down from 12,619 in 2005 and 17,834 the year before.
But those labs have been replaced by superlabs in Mexico and by Mexican-run labs in some American border states, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said. They are supplied with bulk shipments of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine originating mostly in China, India and Germany, he said.
"The issue now is international chemical control," Mr. Payne said. "When these chemicals are diverted onto the illegal market, that is a global issue."
Gregg Sullivan, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chattanooga, said people who made meth in East Tennessee's clandestine labs "created a strong user base."
"Now Mexican organizations have come in and filled that need," he said. "They are bringing in the product in very creative ways using the interstates in vehicles and trucks."
But U.S. officials say Mexico is taking its own steps to halt the illegal flow of meth.
Mexico has limited the sale of pills containing pseudoephedrine to licensed pharmacies and requires the medicine be stocked behind the counter. It has prohibited customers from buying more than three boxes of pills with pseudoephedrine and mandated prescriptions for larger doses.
In March, agents in Mexico City seized $206 million in a methamphetamine case that DEA chief Karen Tandy then described as the largest drug cash seizure ever.
Mrs. Tandy said U.S. drug agents working with Mexican police discovered the money — profits of methamphetamine sold in the United States — stuffed inside walls, suitcases and closets in one of Mexico City's wealthiest neighborhoods.
Mr. Dedrick said law-enforcement agents are now more focused on intercepting interstate traffickers. "They will be seen more and more," he said. "We will see increased numbers in cases involving foreign nationals."
Mr. Payne said the DEA has offices in more than 50 countries, but "we can't just go into another country and arrest somebody."
"There is no way we are going to solve problems of international chemical trafficking without global cooperation," he said.