SAN ANTONIO – Easier to smuggle and harder to detect, methamphetamine in liquid form is now the No. 1 drug entering the Southwest border, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The Mexican cartels have figured out a very effective way to massively produce very low cost, inexpensive methamphetamine year-round," said Wendell Campbell, spokesperson for the DEA's Houston division.
He said the price has dropped by 50 percent, from $21,000 per kilo in 2010 to $10,000 last year.
He said the agency has seen a 350 percent increase in seizures over the past few years.
Campbell said the cartels are using chemical ingredients from China in so-called "super labs" that churn out meth by the ton to meet the demand in the U.S. and beyond.
Besides crystal and powdered meth, Campbell said liquid meth is smuggled into the U.S. for further processing in conversion labs.
Mixed with gasoline or acetone in large barrels, he said the highly flammable solvents are boiled off over an open fire.
"What's left inside that barrel starts to crystallize, and little crystal shards will pop up inside that barrel where it can be scraped out and packaged," Campbell said.
He said the process is repeated in order to get every last bit of meth.
However, San Antonio police and the Bexar County Sheriff's Office report they have yet to encounter any local conversion labs.
But Campbell said federal agents on the border have made liquid meth seizures valued in the millions.
Last March, Austin police had its first liquid meth seizure, eight to 10 gallons capable of producing 64 pounds of crystal or powdered meth worth $3 million. A spokesperson said the liquid meth was hidden in a compartment within a gas tank.
Campbell said if the liquid meth is smuggled in the solvents, there is little telltale odor.
"It's being masked by the smell of gasoline. It's being masked by the smell of acetone," Campbell said.
He said even so, when confiscated, agents must wear breathing apparatus and protective gear, because they're handling hazardous materials.
Campbell said refining liquid meth poses a serious threat of fire, explosion or contamination.
"It's extremely dangerous. It's extremely dangerous for communities," h esaid. "It's a public health risk."
The DEA spokesperson said the same can be said about its effect on those who use meth.
He said, "It's highly potent and incredibly addictive," capable of destroying lives.