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updated 9/1/2011 4:25:59 PM ET 2011-09-01T20:25:59

Mexican drug cartels stymied by a crackdown in their own country may have tried to ship a quarter-ton of a drug-making chemical through Los Angeles International Airport, a U.S. customs spokesman said Thursday.

Eight drums containing 520 pounds of powdered methylamine hydrochloride were seized Aug. 12 at an air cargo consignment facility.

The highly restricted substance can have legitimate uses such as making pesticides, solvents and pharmaceuticals, but it's also a precursor for creating methamphetamine and the party drug Ecstasy, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jaime Ruiz said.

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Theoretically, the chemical could have produced 330 pounds of methamphetamine, he said.

The cargo arrived from China and was supposed to be shipped to a company in central Mexico. The amount of the chemical, its origin, destination and lack of proper documentation aroused suspicion.

"Are the Mexican cartels now using LAX? That's the big question," Ruiz said. "We don't know. But this is an indication that someone, somewhere in central Mexico was trying import this stuff from China without any documents."

No arrests were made, but Mexican authorities were notified, he said.

Mexico is main source for meth
Mexico is the main source of methamphetamine in the United States. The drug has also become a scourge in Mexico's northern border cities like Tijuana, across from San Diego, and Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.

Story: Cops nab 212 pounds of meth in multimillion dollar bust

Production in Mexico fell in 2007 and 2008 after its government began to limit the availability of precursor chemicals, according to the U.S. Justice Department's 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment. By late 2008, Mexican cartels began using new chemicals and establishing new smuggling routes from outside to Mexico to get ingredients.

Mexican cartels began smuggling ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from China and India, using routes through Africa, Europe and South America, the report said. They also slap incorrect labels on chemicals to avoid being detected at Mexican border crossings.

"We strongly believe that the cartels are getting frustrated on the southwest border and are trying to use other routes" to obtain drug precursors, Ruiz said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Tennessee tracks cold meds to stop meth scourge

  1. Transcript of: Tennessee tracks cold meds to stop meth scourge

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: There is news tonight about a problem destroying lives and getting worse in this country, and states across this country are trying to figure out how to get it under control. The problem is meth labs. And while some say it didn't go far enough, the state with the worst of the problem, Tennessee , has agreed on a compromise. They're willing to try, at least, and hope it helps. Our report from NBC 's Mark Potter .

    Sheriff JOE GUY (McMinn County Sheriff's Office): And our officers discovered a meth lab .

    MARK POTTER reporting: At a mobile home near a high school in Etowah , Tennessee , investigators say they have uncovered two methamphetamine labs.

    Sheriff GUY: They can smoke it. They can eat it. They can inject it.

    POTTER: Down the road they also clean up the toxic remnants of a third lab.

    Unidentified Man: You've got to have the pseudoephedrine to make methamphetamine.

    POTTER: Authorities find more meth labs in Tennessee than in any other state, more than 2,000 last year alone.

    Mr. MARK GWYN (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director): To say we're in a crisis, I think is an understatement. There are lives being damaged and lost every day because of this scourge of methamphetamine.

    POTTER: Meth is a highly addictive stimulant, usually produced in illegal, homemade labs. A key ingredient is pseudoephedrine, found in common cold medicines. Detectives say some of the people here making meth have 30 to 40 people working for them, called smurfers. Their job is to go into local drug stores to buy cold medicine with pseudoephedrine, one box at a time. To control the smurfers, McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy believes a prescription should be required for pseudoephedrine products, already the law in Mississippi and Oregon .

    Sheriff GUY: You take away pseudoephedrine, you take away meth. It's the one product that has got to be in the mix to make methamphetamine.

    POTTER: But at his Etowah drugstore, pharmacist Jeff Anderson argues, a prescription law makes it hard for real patients to get fast relief.

    Mr. JEFF ANDERSON (Anderson Drugs): You're punishing law-abiding citizens that have a legitimate need. We need to punish the criminals and leave the other guys alone.

    POTTER: The Tennessee legislature agrees and has just approved a computer monitoring system to record and track the names of pseudoephedrine buyers...

    Sheriff GUY: That's a shake and bake plan.

    POTTER: ...saying if that doesn't save lives, it could then consider prescriptions. Mark Potter , NBC News,

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