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.
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.
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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.
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.