By Dialogo October 25, 2013 Security forces in Guatemala and El Salvador are launching initiatives to intercept large shipments of chemicals which are used to produce highly-addictive drugs, such as crystal methamphetamine and other drugs. The drug precursors are usually shipped from China. Organized crime operatives smuggle the precursors into Guatemala and El Salvador, where they are used to produce crystal methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs. ‘ Alarming consumption Two Mexican transnational criminal organizations, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, have greatly expanded their operations in Central America. Both organized crime groups have created alliances with gangs based in Central America, such as El Salvador’s Mara Salvatruch and 18th Street gangs. “The illicit activities of gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Mara 18, have included the creation of labs and the trafficking of methamphetamines in the Central American market,” Rodríguez Luna explaine d. The Sinaloa Cartel is led by fugitive drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who also has extensive operations in Ecuador. Operation Lionfish’ OAS initiative A growing threat In recent years, organized crime operatives have increased the volume of precursor drugs they smuggle into Central America, as well as the amount of synthetic drugs they produce in the region, according to Asturias. The production of synthetic drugs “is a problem that is becoming bigger for Central America,” Asturias said. “Synthetic drugs could start to replace the natural ones. Synthetic drugs are easier to produce, transport and move around in order to reach the market and satisfy the demand in countries such as the U.S.” Organized crime groups traffic most of the synthetic drugs that are produced in Central Americ north to Mexico and the U.S. But transnational criminal organizations are selling greater amounts of these drugs in the Americas. More synthetic drugs are consumed in Central America than other drugs, such as cocaine or marijuana. The annual consumption of synthetic drugs in El Salvador, Belize Costa Rica, and Panama is higher than the world average. There are some 330,000 synthetic drug users in Central America and the Carbbean, according to the anual report 2012 of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC). The United States, Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador are among the countries with the highest numbers of illegal synthetic drug labs, according to Armando Rodríguez Luna, a security analyst at the researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Transnational criminal organization operatives typically smuggle precursor chemicals from China to ports in Central America and Mexico in large boats. Organized crime groups pick up the chemicals and transport them in SUVs and trucks to illegal labs. The chemicals are used to produce crystal methamphetamine , Ecstasy, and synthetic drugs which are known as “Spice,” “K-2” and “Wicked.” These drugs are highly addictive and can cause mental problems, such as paranoia, schizophrenia, and violent behavior. The chemicals are often shipped by Chinese organized crime groups, which are known as “triads.” A regional approach From China to Latin America In addition to Operation Lionfish, Guatemalan authorities and officials with the Organization of American States (OAS) have been developing an initiative to seize and destroy precursor chemicals since April 2013. The effort may eventually include security forces from other Central American countries, such as El Salvador, OAS officials said. The United States government provided $500,000 toward the initiative. Security forces from the Americas and U.S. officials are cooperating in the battle against the smuggling of precursor drugs into the region. The Americas and the U.S. are also cooperating to stop the smuggling of synthetic drugs from Central America north to Mexico and the United States. “The U.S. is concerned and therefore is cooperating with Central American nations to deal with the chemical precursors issue,” said Sandino Asturias, a coordinator of the International Centre for Human Rights Research (CIIDH), based in Guatemala. Guatemala and other Central American countries have become places where transnational criminal organizations store large amounts of drugs before smuggling them north, he explained. El Chapo’s role Guatemalan authorities, including anti-narcotics police and port security authorities, participated in “Operation Lionfish,” an effort to intercept ships that were transporting precursor chemicals to Central America. Authorities seized eight tons of precursor chemicals during the operation, which took place between May 27 and June 14, 2013. The confiscated precursors were stored in large warehouses in each of the countries. Guatemalan security forces were at the forefront of an international effort. Operation Lionfish was a collaboration between Guatemala, the Caribbean Customs Law Enforcement Council (CCLEC), the World Customs Organization (WCO), Europol, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Europol and the RCMP were involved because organized crime groups smuggle crystal methamphetamines and other synthetic drugs into Canada and Europe. Seizing precursor chemicals was not the only objective of Operation Lionfish. Guatemalan Security forces who participated in the operation also gathered intelligence about the organized crime groups which smuggle precursor chemicals into Guatemala and the routes they use. Security forces throughout the region must cooperate with each other and with U.S. authorities to combat the synthetic drug problem, Asturias said. “The fight against drug trafficking must not be limited to seizing and destroying chemical precursors, there must also be a common and adequate regional policy,” Asturias explained. “Central American nations must update their laws, technology, investigation protocols and security institutions.” Central American security forces will continue to collaborate with U.S. authorities to fight drug trafficking, Rodriguez Luna said. “The fight against drug trafficking is a worldwide effort, not one only for consumer and producer nations and those that serve as drug corridors,” Rodriguez Luna explained. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are training a common security force to fight drug trafficking and other criinal enterprises, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina said on Oct. 7, 2013, during an event organized by his country’s Air Force.