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.
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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.
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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.