Fentanyl continues to wreak havoc on both sides of the US-Mexico border, as Mexican security forces continue to seize the drug while anti-narcotics officials in the United States are warning about increased circulation of pills laced with the deadly synthetic opioid.
Just last week, on October 13, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in Arizona seized tens of thousands of suspected illegal fentanyl pills. The pills weighed more than 20 kilograms and were concealed in a hidden compartment of a pickup truck.
Less than a month earlier, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published its first public safety alert in six years, warning of the risks of pills laced with lethal amounts of fentanyl and methamphetamine – but sold by dealers as prescription pills like Oxycontin.
Between January and September, agents seized more than 9.5 million fake pills laced with fentanyl and methamphetamine, according to the alert. And since 2019, such seizures have increased by almost 430 percent.
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Organized crime groups in Mexico produce the overwhelming majority of illicit fentanyl seized in the United States. One day after the DEA alert was issued last month, Mexico's Attorney General's Office announced the arrest of an individual in northern Sonora state allegedly transporting 17,100 fentanyl pills. The pills were almost certainly to be trafficked across the border.
What's more, the Defense Ministry (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional de México - Sedena) recently reported that officials seized 1,225 kilograms of fentanyl between January and September 21 this year, marking a 16.5 percent uptick from the amount seized during the same time period last year, according to reporting from Milenio.
Criminal groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) have dominated synthetic drug production in Mexico in recent years. The groups control Mexico's ports through official corruption, which are key points for importing precursor chemicals from China and India, as well as from European countries such as Spain.
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Primarily driven by potent synthetic opioids like illicit fentanyl, drug overdose deaths in the United States have exploded, reaching a record high of 93,331 in 2020. But mass production of such drugs is also having notable secondary impacts on drug consumption in Mexico.
Mexico tallied a total of 1,735 overdose deaths in 2020, according to data published this year by the Health Secretary's National Commission against Addictions (Comisión Nacional contra las Adicciones - CONADIC). While the number is likely a vast undercount given serious backups in the country's morgues, deaths attributed to synthetic drugs are nowhere close to the record numbers reported in the United States.
Still, Mexico's drug users are being increasingly exposed to fentanyl -- often unwittingly.
A diagnostic of more than 1,000 public and private drug treatment centers nationwide found that the number of people reported to have consumed fentanyl increased from just 24 between 2013 and 2018 to nearly 100 during the past two years.
"In the study period, there was a significant increase in the detection of cases of fentanyl use," especially in northwest states along the US-Mexico border, according to the report.
While most of the fentanyl makes it over the border, the drug has entered the heroin supply chain in border cities such as Tijuana. This is a worrying sign, given that fentanyl has displaced heroin in some US cities, since it's cheaper to produce and much easier to distribute.
However, a separate CONADIC report analyzing fentanyl and other drug consumption patterns among 254 participants in the states of Baja California, Chihuahua and Sonora found that many users "were unaware that [what they were taking] was fentanyl."
Of those surveyed, only six reported having ever consumed fentanyl. The respondents said the drug is known by other street names: "China White, M30, synthetic heroin or white powder."
Similar to how fake opioid pills laced with fentanyl are meant to deceive users in the United States, the street names are clearly being chosen in a way to hide the true content of the drugs. For example, China White – a deceptive name taken from a potent form of Southeast Asian heroin – is actually heroin mixed with fentanyl powder.