Amid U.S. pressure on fentanyl, Mexico raises drug lab raids data
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[March 18, 2023]
By Drazen Jorgic, Jackie Botts and Stephen Eisenhammer
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's army has dramatically revised upward
the number of drug lab raids it says it conducted under President Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador, according to government data and leaked military
documents reviewed by Reuters.
The documents, found among a trove of millions of emails leaked last
year by the Guacamaya hacker group, show the upward revision being due
to the army retroactively including hundreds of inactive labs on its
seizures list under Lopez Obrador's presidency. Figures for the years of
previous administrations were left unchanged.
Mexico's army, in a response to a freedom of information request in
February, now says it seized 635 synthetic drug labs during 2019, 2020
and 2021 - the first three years of Lopez Obrador's administration - up
from 104 busts it had previously reported for the same period.
The army also said it seized nearly 500 laboratories in 2022, according
to a military response to a Reuters request in January, by far the
highest annual figure this century.
The hiked up figures are not credible, say two former senior law
enforcement figures in Mexico and the United States, as well as two
serving Mexican security sources.
"These numbers are outrageous and not worth the paper they are written
on," said Matthew Donahue, former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
(DEA) Regional Director who was previously based in Mexico and retired
from the agency last year, when presented with Reuters' analysis of the
In his view, the numbers were aimed at "placating the United States and
to make it appear they are doing something, when clearly they are not."
Donahue said his allegations were based on past experience of working in
Mexico, though Reuters could not independently verify his claims.
The description of the drugs the Mexicans say they seized in the labs
also raises questions about the accuracy of the lab data, said two of
the security sources. In the data sets reviewed by Reuters, almost all
the labs raided are labeled as methamphetamine labs and none are labeled
as producing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid driving record American
The absence of fentanyl lab raids is highly improbable as Mexican crime
syndicates had long ago pivoted to mass producing the drug on home soil,
according to the two security sources, a trend that accelerated after
China classified fentanyl as a controlled substance in 2019.
In response to detailed questions from Reuters about the revised lab
counts, the Mexican Defense Ministry (SEDENA) said that it "has no
information that answers the request". SEDENA, which oversees the army,
also did not respond to additional questions about allegations that it
included "inactive" labs on seizure lists and that the figures lacked
The presidency did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the
changes to the data. On Thursday, President Lopez Obrador said in a
regular morning press conference: "We are constantly destroying
The White House and the DEA declined to comment on Reuters' findings. A
State Department spokesperson said the U.S. supports Mexico's efforts to
"effectively seize and investigate clandestine drug labs" and is working
with Mexican counter-narcotics agencies to "establish protocols" for
reporting such seizures.
U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia who sits on the Foreign
Relations Committee, commented on Reuters' findings after the
publication of the story by warning the epidemic of overdose deaths
requires "close collaboration" with Mexico to address drug trafficking.
"If Mexican leaders are not doing their part, or trying to minimize the
issue, that's deeply concerning and we should hold them accountable,"
Kaine told Reuters in a statement.
FENTANYL OR NOT?
Laboratory busts, often in hard-to-reach mountainous areas, have
historically been a key metric for how active Mexican security forces
have been in targeting drug trafficking groups.
According to the documents reviewed by Reuters, the revisions to the
data occurred a few weeks prior to Lopez Obrador's July 2022 visit to
the White House amid intensifying U.S. pressure for Mexico to do more to
combat the production and trafficking of fentanyl. Mexico denies
fentanyl is produced there.
[to top of second column]
Mexican Army personnel interact at a
seized fentanyl pill manufacturing center and a methamphetamine lab,
in Culiacan, in Sinaloa state, Mexico February 14, 2023. Mexico's
Defense Ministry (SEDENA)/Handout via REUTERS
On Wednesday, in the president's
daily press conference, officials again fought back against U.S.
claims that fentanyl is produced in Mexico and presented a video
that said the current administration had raided 153% more drug labs
than the previous one.
Mexico's foreign ministry said on March 13 that its security
services had "no record" of fentanyl production in the country,
contradicting DEA claims that Mexican cartels dominate the entire
global fentanyl supply chain.
Recent fentanyl seizures by U.S. authorities at the southern border
with Mexico have broken records year after year. U.S. officials
intercepted 14,104 pounds (6,397 kg) of fentanyl in fiscal year
2022, a 33% increase on the previous year, according to the U.S.
Customs And Border Protection agency.
Mexico's foreign ministry responded to Reuters questions about the
lab raids data by forwarding Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard's
Wednesday statements on fentanyl trafficking, in which he said that
fentanyl was pressed into pills in Mexico, but the drug itself was
not manufactured there.
Ebrard said the drug is imported to Mexico from the United States
and unspecified "Asian countries".
Relations between the United States and Mexico have been strained
under Lopez Obrador, who has curbed security cooperation and
chastised the conduct of DEA agents in Mexico, accusing them of
trampling on Mexico's sovereignty.
DEA head Anne Milgram last month told the U.S. Congress the agency
was "very concerned about clandestine labs across Mexico", adding
that "virtually all" the fentanyl seized in the United States is
While the army has publicized the higher lab raid figures in recent
monthly security reports, it has offered no public explanation for
the data changes, and the inclusion of inactive labs has not been
In addition to Donahue, the former DEA regional director, three
other Mexican and foreign security sources said they doubted the
veracity of the lab seizure figures.
The changes to the data were a "mockery," said one of them,
Guillermo Valdes, Mexico's civilian spy chief between 2007 and 2011,
when Reuters showed him the data. "It is shameful that the army is
willing to do that and gamble with its credibility."
Internal military documents found among the millions of leaked army
emails released by the Guacamaya hacker group show that in June 2022
the army began including "inactive abandoned" labs in its tally of
In a draft report of crime-fighting statistics attached to an email
dated May 30, the army said 232 labs were raided under Lopez Obrador
(including 2019, 2020, 2021 and part of 2022). A week later, in a
revised version of the same report sent on June 7, the army had
increased that total to 873, explaining that 232 were active
laboratories, while the rest were "inactive abandoned" labs.
The four former and serving security officials Reuters spoke to say
there is no obvious reason to place inactive labs, which may have
been abandoned for years, on its seizures list.
One army dataset, provided in response to a freedom of information
request in August 2022, shows 14 lab raids conducted on one day in
June 2022 and 12 lab busts two days later - more than the army had
managed in the entire year in 2021 under the old counting method.
Mexico's Attorney General's Office (FGR) also tallies lab raids and
its figures include seizures made by other security agencies. FGR
data has historically been slightly higher than, though broadly in
line with, figures provided by the army, which is responsible for
the vast majority of raids.
For 2021, FGR recorded 23 lab seizures whereas the army now claims
to have done 217 (raised from 21 in previous data).
In 2022, FGR reported 18 lab raids by all security agencies,
compared to the army's count of 492 raids.
FGR did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic, Jackie Botts and Stephen Eisenhammer;
Additional reprting by Sarah Kinosian, Dave Graham, Lizbeth Diaz and
Alex Alper; editing by Claudia Parsons)
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