HomeNewsAnalysisMexico's Fentanyl Crisis Reached New Heights in 2020
ANALYSIS

Mexico's Fentanyl Crisis Reached New Heights in 2020

FENTANYL / 14 JAN 2021 BY MAX RADWIN EN

Trafficking of the deadly opioid fentanyl skyrocketed in 2020 throughout Mexico, solidifying the synthetic drug's status as a top criminal economy and the country's role as an international trafficking transit point.

Annual drug statistics for 2020 show fentanyl on the rise across Mexico, with numerous drug cartels fighting for control of the blossoming market.

The Ministry of Defense reports that 1,301 kilograms were seized throughout the year -- an alarming figure, given that the drug is fifty to hundred times more potent than heroin and morphine.

SEE ALSO: US Chemicals Help Fuel Mexico Drug Production

Overall, 2020's numbers represent an eye-popping 486 percent increase from 2019, when just 222 kilograms were seized, according to the Associated Press. Authorities also destroyed 175 clandestine laboratories, more than double that of the previous year.

Last October, one of the largest operations of the year involved simultaneous seizures across multiple states. In the state of Mexico, one laboratory had the potential to process an "unprecedented" 5,000 kilograms of precursor chemicals, authorities said. Another laboratory found during the operation, in the state of Sonora, was housing fifty drums of precursor chemicals.

"Demand is increasing," Defense Minister Luis Crescencio Sandoval said in December. "These drugs are much more profitable for criminal organizations."

Precursor chemicals arrived from China and India at Mexican ports like Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas, where they were processed into fentanyl and often sent abroad. States known for drug trafficking activity -- such as Zacatecas, Guerrero and Baja California -- remained hotspots for the trade.

But other parts of the country -- not on traditional drug trafficking routes -- also saw increasing fentanyl activity in 2020. Mexico City's international airport, for example, saw seizures of precursor chemicals that were much larger than in previous years. In the past, the airport had only caught small quantities of fentanyl pills.

Numerous criminal organizations clashed in an attempt to control this lucrative supply chain, contributing to what is poised to be one of the highest homicide rates in years. In Zacatecas, powerful crime groups -- most notably the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) -- contributed to endemic violence throughout the year, much of it presumably tied to the fentanyl trade.

Many seizures carried out in 2020 indicate that while the top-tier crime groups control a significant portion of the fentanyl market, there is an increasing number of smaller criminal groups attempting to carve out space, as well. The border city of Juárez, for example, registered several small-time arrests of local dealers and transporters traveling with fentanyl.

InSight Crime Analysis

The massive spike in fentanyl seizures is concerning for several reasons.

First, it indicates that drug cartels are continuing to shift their efforts to trafficking opioids, which from a business perspective is a smarter investment than heroin, cocaine or marijuana. Fentanyl and its variants are extremely addictive, guaranteeing a consistent if not constantly-growing demand from the United States, which sees thousands of overdose deaths each year. Officials announced a public health emergency for opioids in 2017. The situation was grimmer than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, with fentanyl deaths hitting record levels.

And because fentanyl comes in a potent pill form, it is easier to ship undetected than other, bulkier drugs packaged in bricks or bags. Traffickers are also very good at mislabeling shipping containers traveling internationally with precursor chemicals, a 2019 InSight Crime investigation found.

SEE ALSO: Fentanyl Case Shows China's Scary Ability to Adapt

Second, the seizures were carried out throughout the country, not just in states prominently controlled by drug cartels. This suggests that groups are developing new and more sophisticated trafficking routes, devoting more territory to establishing drug labs, and hiring more subcontractors who specialize in producing or distributing synthetics.

If there is a silver lining to the 2020 numbers, it is that Mexican law enforcement may be taking fentanyl more seriously than it has in years past. In interviews with InSight Crime in 2019, numerous officials intimated that fentanyl was less of a concern than other drugs being trafficked through the country.

Sandoval's comments in December -- and the number of seizures carried out in 2020 -- suggest that that stance is changing. In fact, it is worth considering that last year's numbers do not only reflect growth in fentanyl production but rather a more dedicated effort to combat a longstanding problem.

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

JALISCO CARTEL / 22 JUL 2022

El Chapo's sons, the Jalisco Cartel, more - a free-for-all may be happening in Sonora after the fall of Rafael…

ARMS TRAFFICKING / 7 MAR 2022

Authorities in Mexico recently seized an historic amount of high-powered weapons and ammunition in a northern border state, laying bare…

PARAGUAY / 10 JUN 2022

Authorities in Paraguay have dismantled a ring that sold a range of synthetic drugs, indicating that this subset of the…

About InSight Crime

LA ORGANIZACIÓN

Extensive Coverage of our Chronicles of a Cartel Bodyguard

23 SEP 2022

Our recent investigation, A Cartel Bodyguard in Mexico’s 'Hot Land', has received extensive media coverage.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime, American University Host Illegal Fishing Panel

19 SEP 2022

InSight Crime and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University discussed the findings of a joint investigation on IUU fishing at a September 9 conference.

THE ORGANIZATION

Impact on the Media Landscape

9 SEP 2022

InSight Crime’s first investigation on the Dominican Republic made an immediate impact on the Dominican media landscape, with major news outlets republishing and reprinting our findings, including in …

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Sharpens Its Skills

2 SEP 2022

Last week, the InSight Crime team gathered for our annual retreat in Colombia, where we discussed our vision and strategy for the next 12 months.  During the week, we also learned how to…

THE ORGANIZATION

Colombia’s Fragile Path to Peace Begins to Take Shape

26 AUG 2022

InSight Crime is charting the progress of President Gustavo Petro’s agenda as he looks to revolutionize Colombia’s security policy, opening dialogue with guerrillas, reforming the military and police, and…