Mexican cartels have a growing role in Fentanyl trafficking in the U.S.

On July 16, 2019, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing entitled Oversight of Federal Efforts to Combat the Spread of Illicit Fentanyl. Mexican drug cartels play a fundamental role in the manufacturing and distribution of fentanyl, and witness testimony focusing on the cartels is the subject of this post.

Fentanyl is an opioid

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid, meaning that it produces morphine-like effects. It's about 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, and is legally available only through a nonrefillable prescription. In recent years, illicitly manufactured powdered fentanyl has become a growing threat, constituting a primary driver of drug overdoses and the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Fentanyl overdose deaths in the United States

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released data showing that, in the United States in 2017, there were over 70,000 drug overdose deaths, with over 47,000 involving opioids. Over 28,000 of those deaths involved synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, representing an increase of nearly 47 percent compared to the previous year.

drug overdose deaths
The sharp increase in fentanyl overdose deaths in the United States. The chart is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The growing role of Mexican cartels in Fentanyl trafficking

Matthew Donahue is the Regional Director, North and Central Americas, in the Operation Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which is a law enforcement agency under the U.S. Department of Justice.

In his opening statement before the subcommittee, Donahue observed that China has been the principal source country of fentanyl-like substances and other synthetic opioids. He noted that the DEA has been working closely with China and that they have been bringing illegal production of fentanyl under control. He then added ominously:

This is a promising development; however, if increased regulatory controls taking effect in China, Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) may fill the void. DEA is continuing to see a shift from importation of precursor chemicals for the production of fentanyl and fentanyl like substances to the manufacturing of precursor chemicals within Mexico itself. This is an alarming development.

Matthew Donahue described the role of Mexican drug cartels in the manufacture and distribution stages in the supply chain:

Illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and other NPS are relatively inexpensive, available via the Internet, and are often manufactured in China where they may be shipped (via the international postal system or express consignment couriers) to the United States; alternatively, they may be shipped directly to transnational criminal organizations in Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. Once in the Western Hemisphere, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues in particular are combined with heroin, cocaine, and other substances, and/or pressed into counterfeit pills made to look like controlled prescription drugs containing oxycodone or hydrocodone. They are then sold online on anonymous darknet markets, and even on overtly-operated websites or on the street.

The involvement of Mexico's two most “preeminent” drug cartels does not stop at Mexico's northern border. Rather; their agents and associates are involved in the distribution of fentanyl within the United States interior.

Mexico is the primary producer and supplier of heroin to the United States, additionally, Mexico is an increasing source of fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances. DEA investigative reporting indicates that the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) are likely the primary groups trafficking fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances into the United States via the Southwest Border. The presence of fentanyl commingled with other poly-drug loads typical of Sinaloa and CJNG suggests strong links between these TCOs and fentanyl trafficking into the United States. This is not surprising considering Sinaloa maintains the most expansive footprint in the United States, while CJNG’s domestic presence has significantly expanded in the past few years.

Thomas Overacker is the Executive Director in the Office of Field Operations of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which is the largest law enforcement agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In his opening statement, Overacker described the critical role played by CBP in preventing illicit narcotics from reaching the American public, as it relates to fentanyl.

Overacker explained that the most pure and potent fentanyl enters the United States through its international airports, and that most of these shipments originate from China, with some also coming from Canada and Mexico. He proceeded to describe fentanyl smuggling through the U.S. southern border.

Although far less pure, most of the illicit fentanyl entering our country by weight does so at ports of entry (POEs) along our southwest border by private vehicles, pedestrian, and commercial vehicles. The reach and influence of Mexican cartels stretch across and beyond the Southwest border, operating through business ties with smaller organizations in communities across the United States. The threat of these cartels is dynamic; rival organizations are constantly vying for control, and as U.S. and Mexican anti-drug efforts disrupt criminal networks, new groups arise and form new alliances.