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Fentanyl: Summary and Major Findings

DRUG POLICY / 12 FEB 2019 BY STEVEN DUDLEY EN

Since surging into the market in 2013, fentanyl has become the most lethal category of opioid in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that more than 47,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2017 in the United States—28,000 of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids, which the CDC says is largely the result of the uptick in abuse of fentanyl.

This investigation sought to better situate Mexico’s role in the fentanyl trade. Chinese companies produce the vast majority of fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and fentanyl precursors, but Mexico is becoming a major transit and production point for the drug and its analogs as well, and Mexican traffickers appear to be playing a role in its distribution in the United States.

This article is part of a series on the growing demand for fentanyl and its deadly consequences done with the support of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. See the rest of the series here.

To investigate Mexico’s role, we found we had to look at the entire distribution chain. InSight Crime employed two researchers in Mexico, two in the United States, and two in Colombia who combed through databases, scoured judicial documents, filed freedom of information requests, and executed dozens of interviews in Mexico and the United States with law enforcement, prosecutors, health specialists, and others. The result is a nuanced picture but one with troubling implications for the future of drug trafficking and drug consumption.

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While seemingly dominated by two large criminal groups in Mexico, the fentanyl trade requires vast networks of smaller subcontractors who specialize in importing, producing, and transporting synthetic drugs. Both large and small organizations appear to be taking advantage of the surge in popularity of the drug, which is increasingly laced into other substances such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana—very often without the end-user knowing it. To be sure, rising seizures of counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl illustrate that the market is maturing in other ways as well.

Fentanyl’s potency also opens the door to entrepreneurs who bypass Mexico altogether, obtaining their supplies directly from China and selling them on the dark web. There is little public understanding of the prevalence of this part of the trade and even less of its medium- and long-term implications. The low barrier of entry into this market and its high returns make for a frightening future in which synthetic drugs of all types could proliferate.

Major Findings

  • Fentanyl lends itself to drug trafficking in many respects and therefore may represent how the drug trade might move in the future to more portable and intoxicating synthetic substances.
  • Fentanyl is potent. Small amounts means less risk in the production and transport process but still significant profits.
  • Production of fentanyl is also relatively simple and cheap, opening the door for smaller groups to enter the trade using small spaces and moving small quantities over the dark web.
  • China produces nearly all of the fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and fentanyl precursors in the world, although India—with its large chemical infrastructure—appears poised to make an entry into the market, and Mexican traffickers are starting to produce it as well using precursors obtained mostly in China.
  • Mexico is a growing transit and production point for fentanyl, with most of the product entering via the ports of Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas.
  • Mexico’s two largest criminal organizations—the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG)—are the most important Mexican purveyors of the drug and its precursors, although smaller criminal organizations and contractors may play significant roles in production and transport of the drug along the distribution chain.
  • It is not clear how much Mexico-sourced fentanyl is being consumed in the United States. There are conflicting accounts of how much is arriving directly from China versus how much is coming via Mexico.
  • US authorities say Dominican traffickers are the main suppliers to end-consumers in the Northeast of the US, although Mexican trafficking networks do play a significant role.
  • Heroin and fentanyl are often trafficked together, but fentanyl and methamphetamine may have more in common in the production phase and are increasingly seen at the end-user stage.
  • Legacy criminal organizations with experience importing chemicals for methamphetamine production from Asia seem to be the best-positioned to take advantage of this surge in fentanyl use.
  • Mexico’s government does not see fentanyl as an important issue yet and has not devoted significant resources towards finding the principal drivers of the trade inside its borders.

    This article is part of a series on the growing demand for fentanyl and its deadly consequences done with the support of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. See the rest of the series here.
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