HomeNewsAnalysisFentanyl Enters Heroin Supply in Tijuana, Mexico
ANALYSIS

Fentanyl Enters Heroin Supply in Tijuana, Mexico

FENTANYL / 30 JAN 2020 BY SETH ROBBINS EN

Drug users in Tijuana are being unwittingly exposed to the deadly opioid fentanyl in a corridor where the drug is frequently smuggled, but where the effects of the opioid crisis had not been seen until recently.

A study at three needle exchange sites in the Mexico border city found traces of fentanyl in 55 of 59 samples of what users said they believed to be white powder heroin, Mexican researchers stated in a December 2019 report.

The researchers, testing nearly 90 syringes and other paraphernalia from the users of heroin and methamphetamine, found that about 75 percent were positive for the synthetic opioid. The only samples that showed no traces of fentanyl were described by users as black tar heroin or crystal methamphetamine.

SEE ALSO: Mexico's Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl

Since the mid-1990s, black tar heroin has been the main form of heroin produced in western Mexico. But Clara Fleiz, an investigator at Mexico's Ramón de la Fuente Muñiz National Institute of Psychiatry and the study’s lead author, said that she and her team are increasingly seeing the white form, which mixes easily with fentanyl powder. Known locally as China White, this is not the Southeast Asian heroin of the same name.

The Tijuana heroin users “think that they are consuming China White, but what they are being exposed to is fentanyl” and its dangers, Fleiz told InSight Crime.

Fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than heroin and lethal in even a minute dose. The researchers launched their study out of concern that fentanyl was in the drug supply when, in recent years, they started seeing a spike in overdose victims who needed to be revived with naloxone, a powerful opioid antidote.

“We began to hear reports,” Fleiz said, “of white powder that was more potent.”

InSight Crime Analysis

There are three separate factors likely allowing fentanyl to penetrate Tijuana’s drug supply.

First, the Mexico-California border city sits on a major fentanyl smuggling route to the United States. The United States has been in the grips of an opioid crisis for a decade and has seen a dramatic rise in illicit fentanyl overdoses and deaths.

Southern California ports of entry accounted for more than half of around 2,500 pounds of fentanyl seized nationwide in rhe fiscal year 2019, according to US Customs and Border Protection data (CBP). The amount of fentanyl seized by California’s CBP agents also rose last year. Agents captured 1,472 pounds of the drug, a 32 percent increase from the fiscal year 2018.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profile

In an InSight Crime investigation on the growing role of Mexico in the fentanyl trade, the northwestern state of Baja California, which includes Tijuana, was highlighted as the key trafficking route.

Traffickers who are finding success moving illicit fentanyl into the United States are leaving some of the drugs in Tijuana, authorities told Televisa. Fentanyl is also manufactured in the state. A fentanyl laboratory run by a Bulgarian biochemist was raided in the capital city of Mexicali.

Second, Mexico’s powerful Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) has infiltrated the Pacific ports of Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo, both of which are major entry points for fentanyl and its precursor chemicals smuggled from China.

To process and move the fentanyl, smaller groups -- often with ties to the cartels and experience in manufacturing other synthetic drugs, like methamphetamines -- are involved.

These subcontractors also supply local dealers. The drugs become a “weapon to control territory and to set up a domestic base of small-time criminals who push for control of neighborhoods,” Nathan P. Jones, an assistant professor of security studies at Sam Houston State University in Texas, told InSight Crime. Homicides in Tijuana surged in recent years as low-level dealers battled for control of drug sales, particularly of methamphetamines.

Jones said this dynamic may be behind fentanyl’s appearance in Tijuana’s local drug supply. Both the Jalisco Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel are vying to control drug routes in Baja California.

Third, Tijuana has long been home to a large population struggling with drug addiction.

Tijuana is home to about 10,000 people who inject drugs, Fleiz said. The increase in overdoses among heroin users in Tijuana began in 2017, the same time when fentanyl seizures increased along the Mexico-US border, she said.

Mexico’s government recently started a campaign that warns: “fentanyl kills.” Yet as Fleiz and her colleagues point out, drug users generally don’t know whether their heroin is laced with fentanyl.

Mexico’s government can save lives by making naloxone, the opioid antidote, more readily available, Fleiz said. Many US states have allowed for the medication, which is administered by injection or nasal spray, to be sold by pharmacists, and it is carried by police and first responders in many states.

While Fleiz said she doesn’t see fentanyl as likely to claim as many lives in Mexico as it has in the United States, she says overdose deaths will rise.

Heroin users have begun to seek out the largely contaminated white powder heroin for its potency, Fleiz said, choosing it over other forms.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

ELITES AND CRIME / 1 SEP 2014

US authorities are investigating allegations that California energy company Sempra had links to Mexican criminal groups and bribed prominent…

CANADA / 16 JAN 2013

US court documents reveal details of a cocaine and marijuana trafficking ring linking Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel to Canadian…

ARMS TRAFFICKING / 25 FEB 2011

The internal divisions caused by the recent death of a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the hands of…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Unraveling the Web of Elites Connected to Organized Crime

27 JUL 2021

InSight Crime published Elites and Organized Crime in Nicaragua, a deep dive into the relationships between criminal actors and elites in that Central American nation.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime’s Greater Focus on US-Mexico Border

20 JUL 2021

InSight Crime has decided to turn many of its investigative resources towards understanding and chronicling the criminal dynamics along the US-Mexico border.

THE ORGANIZATION

Key Arrests and Police Budget Increases Due to InSight Crime Investigations

8 JUL 2021

With Memo Fantasma’s arrest, InSight Crime has proven that our investigations can and will uncover major criminal threats in the Americas.

THE ORGANIZATION

Organized Crime’s Influence on Gender-Based Violence

30 JUN 2021

InSight Crime investigator Laura N. Ávila spoke on organized crime and gender-based violence at the launch of a research project by the United Nations Development Programme.

THE ORGANIZATION

Conversation with Paraguay Judicial Operators on PCC

24 JUN 2021

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley formed part of a panel attended by over 500 students, all of whom work in Paraguay's judicial system.