Five gangs are reportedly vying for control of the fentanyl trade in Mexico's inland state of Zacatecas, suggesting that trafficking of this dangerous opioid is happening more widely across Mexico.
In early February, Zacatecas' Secretary of Public Security Ismael Camberos Hernández suggested that 90 percent of homicides in the state could be attributed to conflicts between criminal groups, which have been reportedly engaged in a five-way battle over the fentanyl trade that has intensified in the last year.
According to data from the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública - SNSP), the number of homicides recorded in the state skyrocketed to 666, over double the 280 homicides recorded a decade ago.
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How many of these homicides can be directly attributed to the fentanyl trade is a difficult question to answer. Nevertheless, three important seizures of the synthetic opioid made on the state’s highways last year suggest that Zacatecas is a significant transit point in the trafficking of the synthetic opioid. In 2018, the state’s Attorney General’s Office also began using chromatography equipment, devices that can detect and identify samples of fentanyl, to help combat trafficking, Televisa News reported.
However, efforts to curb the fentanyl trade in the state are being hampered by a serious lack of police officers. Five municipalities within Zacatecas have no police presence whatsoever, creating a security vacuum for illegal actors to exploit.
Insight Crime Analysis
According to a 2019 InSight Crime investigation, drug trafficking is a major contributor to violence around Mexico’s Pacific ports and the country’s northwestern border with the United States. A 2019 report also identified 13 routes for fentanyl trafficking, all along Mexico’s Pacific coast.
At first glance, Zacatecas’ inland, central location appears to buck this trend by shifting trafficking routes eastward. However, the state features two major highways including a stretch of the Pan-American Highway, which connects Central America to the US border, and Highway 54, connecting the state of Colima, home to Mexico’s busiest port at Manzanillo, with the US border at Tamaulipas.
At the same time, Zacatecas borders eight other Mexican states, including two on the border with the United States, and the country’s industrial heartland in Guanajuato. Together, this suggests that it central location has made it an important distribution hub in the transit of fentanyl towards the United States.
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The Mexican fentanyl trade is principally dominated by two cartels – the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel. Both groups have a presence in Zacatecas as part of their larger criminal operations, which include the importation and smuggling of fentanyl across the US border. However, within Zacatecas, they are also joined by the Gulf Cartel, as well as the Northeastern Cartel and the Talibanes, both offshoots of the Zetas.
Although extremely volatile, this five-way power struggle is not wholly unexpected. Fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, allowing criminal groups to traffic relatively small amounts without requiring the sophisticated production and trafficking networks necessary for the cocaine or heroin trade. While fentanyl has not yet replaced heroin, the expansion of the fentanyl trade into new territory confirms that it has become one of the primary criminal economies in Mexico.
The situation in Zacatecas is therefore not necessarily unique. Indeed, a fentanyl seizure made in Chihuahua earlier this year demonstrates that trafficking routes are expanding beyond the coast to affect inland and border states. If other criminal groups muscle in on the fractious fentanyl trade in other key sites, it is likely that the violent dynamic in Zacatecas will continue to repeat itself elsewhere in Mexico.