The Flood of Fentanyl across the Border
As communities continue to be ravaged by fentanyl, it is important to know where the drug came from and how deadly it truly is.
From The Wall Street Journal. At a half-built house in a barrio, a longtime Sinaloa cartel employee used a shovel to mix chemicals in a simmering oil barrel.
His concoction was an illegal form of fentanyl, which Mexican criminal organizations are churning out at high volume in laboratories and smuggling across the border. In a six-day workweek, the cook said, he can make enough fentanyl for hundreds of thousands of doses.
With business savvy and growing power in Mexico, the Sinaloa and rival Jalisco cartels dominate the market for supplying fentanyl to the U.S. They cornered the market after China cracked down on fentanyl production several years ago and are now churning out bootleg versions of the highly potent synthetic opioid that, in its legal form, is used under prescription to treat severe pain.
Fentanyl’s inexpensive, easy-to-replicate formula has boosted its appeal to criminal networks. It is also fueling an overdose crisis that claimed more than 108,000 lives in the U.S. last year, a record.
“If it were an athlete, people would call it ‘The G.O.A.T.,’ ” said Jim Crotty, who served as deputy chief of staff at the Drug Enforcement Administration from 2019 to 2021. “It is in fact the most pernicious, the most devastating drug that we have ever seen.”
Like a factory worker at a multinational corporation, the 25-year-old fentanyl cook is part of a globe-spanning production line manufacturing the cartels’ highly profitable export. These crude labs—it is unknown how many there are—can be set up inexpensively and quickly, torn down and moved or abandoned to evade security forces.
The cook said he makes up to $2,500 a week running his one-man lab, where he dons a hazmat suit, dark glasses and a black cloth mask. If he gets queasy, he said, he drinks milk. Jugs line the roughly 10-by-10 foot lab, including one containing a clear liquid marked “Pure Acetone.” Others are marked “Fentanyl XXX,” and “Chinese Chemical….”
Fentanyl production is simpler than heroin, because it is entirely synthetic and doesn’t require cultivating the poppies needed for heroin. Busts of Mexican labs or large seizures at the border can be quickly offset by new batches without having to wait to harvest crops or pay farmers.
It is also less expensive to make. The plant-based opium needed to produce a kilogram of heroin can cost producers about $6,000, while the precursor chemicals to make a kilogram of fentanyl cost $200 or less, according to Bryce Pardo, associate director of the Rand Corp.’s Drug Policy Research Center, who helped lead a recent bipartisan report on synthetic opioids….
Illegal fentanyl production has flared in the past. A 2005 fentanyl surge in parts of the U.S., including the Midwest, led authorities to a single illegal lab in the city of Toluca, near Mexico City. Shutting it down helped stem the problem for a time.
Fentanyl metastasized into a broader crisis in the 2010s, as drugs flowed from China, sometimes through Mexico, and the cartels ramped up their own production. The eastern half of the U.S. was particularly hard-hit as powdered fentanyl was mixed into the heroin supply, sometimes catching users off guard and leading to an increase in fatal overdoses.
In May 2019, under pressure from the U.S., China put fentanyl-related drugs under a controlled regulatory regime. The next year, seizures of fentanyl from China in the U.S. dropped sharply, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
“As we all know, China is not a democracy,” said Jim Carroll, U.S. drug czar under former President Donald Trump. “They can take very quick adverse action against these producers.” Chinese chemical manufacturers continue to sell the ingredients for fentanyl, many of which have a range of legitimate uses.
Mexican cartels were primed to take advantage. They already had established trafficking networks built around drugs like cocaine, marijuana and heroin, said Uttam Dhillon, who served as acting DEA administrator under Mr. Trump. And they had relationships with Chinese chemical makers, and expertise running drugmaking labs, through their production of methamphetamine, another synthetic drug they are sending to the U.S., Mr. Dhillon said.
The DEA said the cartels are pushing their synthetic wares into more parts of the U.S. Methamphetamine is more present in some eastern states where that drug was once rare. And fentanyl is growing in the West. Its potency and the lack of quality control in the black market make it easy to cause overdoses…
The drug often arrives in the form of fake tablets made to look like prescription drugs, including pain pills, law-enforcement authorities said. The DEA believes these dupes—often stamped to look like real 30 milligram oxycodone pills—are aimed at driving prescription drug users toward an illicit, cartel-made product.
The cartels “don’t just fill a void, they create a market,” Mr. Dhillon said.
The pills are so ubiquitous that they have been falling in price, creating pressure on the cartels to roll out new products, according to a 27-year-old fentanyl producer who runs a clandestine lab in Culiacán. He said he and a partner are experimenting with a new version meant to be 30% more potent than the typical fake oxycodone tablets, known as M30s.
The new pills, colored pink, yellow and green, have the shape of a skull, an iconic Mexican folkloric image, and don’t try to mimic real medication. They are also made with butter flavoring so that, when melted on foil with a flame, the pills leave a golden trail and smell like caramel popcorn, telltale signs of quality, said the producer….
Rahul Gupta, director of the Biden White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the U.S. is asking China to enforce proper labeling of chemical shipments and to agree on which regulated chemicals can be used to make fentanyl so they can be tracked….
To try to stop fentanyl precursors from entering Mexico from Asia, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador put the country’s ports and its largest airport in Mexico City under the control of the Mexican navy.
The navy said in June it had seized around 320 tons of illicit-drug chemicals in the past six months. Mexican authorities have also destroyed about 1,000 labs, 90% of them in Sinaloa producing synthetic drugs, mostly methamphetamine, in the 3½ years since Mr. López Obrador took office, a senior Mexican navy officer said.
Since 2017, Mexico has dismantled some 22 fentanyl production sites, said Oscar Santiago Quintos, head of the criminal intelligence agency of the attorney general’s office. In a bust in July, Mexican soldiers captured 543 kilos of what they said was fentanyl, the single largest seizure in Mexican history.
U.S. seizures last year included 20.4 million fake pills, according to the DEA. Fentanyl and other drugs are often ferried across the southern border hidden in secret compartments of vehicles….
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(Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal. Photo Credit: Canva)
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