Authorities in Mexico have recently seized large quantities of fentanyl and precursor chemicals used to make the synthetic drug at the international airport in the capital, raising questions as to what might explain the busts.
On August 18, Mexican customs agents and marines seized 113.5 kilograms of fentanyl at Mexico City’s international airport hidden in containers as part of an air freight shipment, the government announced in a press release. The load's origin was not identified.
This marks the second such shipment discovered this month alone. On August 12, customs authorities at the same airport seized 220 kilograms of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl that were sent from Spain, according to a government press release.
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The seizures suggest a potential operational shift for Mexico’s organized crime groups, which have long used the country’s seaports to move such chemicals from Asia in order to produce fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.
A March report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that a “reduction in trade from southeast Asia” due to the coronavirus pandemic had “limited the supply of chemical precursors in Mexico, where it seems to have disrupted the manufacture of methamphetamine and fentanyl.”
However, the latest seizures suggest that traffickers are working around these hiccups. What's more, National Guard forces in the state of Puebla -- a notorious hub for oil theft -- seized 240 glass capsules of medicinal fentanyl in July that were likely taken from a pharmacy or hospital, according to a report from the Associated Press. Earlier in May, 60 vials of medical grade fentanyl were seized in Querétaro state.
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What is most striking about the recent fentanyl seizures is the sheer quantities being confiscated. Tens of kilograms of fentanyl have been detected at the capital’s airport in the past but not hundreds of kilograms. However, the reasons behind these discoveries are not immediately clear, and there could be a number of potential explanations.
First, the fact that the first seizure of precursors came from Spain suggests that traffickers may now be trying to find alternative transshipment points through third party countries amid border shutdowns and transport restrictions brought on by the coronavirus, according to Bryce Pardo, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
“With less commercial trade from China right now, traffickers could be testing the waters to see what other routes are easier to access,” Pardo said. “It’s a lot faster to move product by air than by sea.”
Mexico’s criminal groups have shown a tremendous ability to adapt. Even amid tighter restrictions on fentanyl production mandated last year in China, the source country for the vast majority of the synthetic drug and its precursor chemicals, crime rings managed to circumvent those controls in part by developing new chemical variants.
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The potential shift to trafficking by air could also be linked to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently deciding to put the military in charge of customs and controlling the country’s ports, which organized crime groups have for years exploited to move everything from chemicals for drug production to international drug shipments into the country.
However, Pardo cautioned that traffickers have long found ways to sidestep such controls and are unlikely to be deterred by the personnel switch.
“More than 19 million tons of legal cargo was imported into the port of Lazaro Cárdenas in Michoacán in 2019 alone. It is very easy to smuggle in a few hundred kilograms of drugs undetected within that,” he said.