ST. LOUIS — Mexican drug cartels are quietly filling the void in the nation's drug market created by the long effort to crack down on American-made methamphetamine, flooding U.S. cities with exceptionally cheap, extraordinarily potent meth from factorylike "superlabs."
Although Mexican meth is not new to the U.S. drug trade, it now accounts for as much as 80 percent of the meth sold here, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And it is as much as 90 percent pure, a level that offers users a faster, more intense and longer-lasting high.
"These are sophisticated, high-tech operations in Mexico that are operating with extreme precision," said Jim Shroba, a DEA agent in St. Louis. "They're moving it out the door as fast as they can manufacture it."
The cartels are expanding into the U.S. meth market just as they did with heroin: developing an inexpensive, highly addictive form of the drug and sending it through the same pipeline already used to funnel marijuana and cocaine, authorities said.
Seizures of meth along the Southwest border have quadrupled during the last several years. DEA records reviewed by the Associated Press show that the amount of seized meth jumped from slightly more than 4,000 pounds in 2007 to more than 16,000 pounds in 2011.
During that same period, the purity of Mexican meth shot up, too, from 39 percent in 2007 to 88 percent by 2011, according to DEA documents. The price fell 69 percent, tumbling from $290 per pure gram to less than $90.
Mexican meth has a clearer, glassier appearance than more crudely produced formulas and often resembles ice fragments, usually with a clear or bluish-white color. It often has a smell people compare to ammonia, cat urine or even burning plastic.
"You can look at it and see it has a much more pure look," said Paul Roach, a DEA agent in Denver.
The rise of Mexican meth doesn't mean American labs have disappeared. The number of U.S. meth labs continues to rise even as federal, state and local laws place heavy restrictions on the purchase of cold and allergy pills containing pseudoephedrine, a major component in the most common meth recipe.
The crackdowns that began a decade ago have made it more difficult to prepare large batches, so many American meth users have turned to a simpler method that uses a 2-liter soda bottle filled with just enough ingredients to produce a small amount of the drug for personal use.
But south of the border, meth is being made on an industrial scale. Sophisticated factories put out tons of the drug using formulas developed by professional chemists. The final product often is smuggled into the U.S. taped beneath tractor-trailers or hidden inside packages of other drugs.
While clandestine U.S. labs generally supply rural areas, Mexican meth is mostly targeted to urban and suburban users. Increasingly large quantities are turning up in dozens of American cities, including Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, St. Louis and Salt Lake City, according to the DEA.
The marketing format follows a well-established pattern. By simultaneously increasing the purity and cutting the price, the cartels get people hooked and create a new customer base.
"They're marketing geniuses," said Jack Riley, the agent in charge of the DEA office in Chicago.