A recent seizure of fentanyl in Mexico has shed further light on the capacity of organized crime groups to mass-produce the deadly synthetic opioid. Still, the timing suggests US officials may be ratcheting up the pressure on officials south of the border.
At the end of October, members of the Mexican Army and the National Guard raided a synthetic drug lab set up in a seemingly middle-class home in Culiacán, the capital of northwest Sinaloa state. In the home, troops seized 118 kilograms of fentanyl, the armed forces announced in a November 4 press release.
This seizure of "pure fentanyl is considered the largest in history," the National Defense Secretariat (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional -- SEDENA) claimed in the news release.
Military officials said that the laboratory could produce 70 kilograms of fentanyl each month, which could be processed into approximately 70 million counterfeit pills.
During the operation, authorities arrested Armando N, alias "El Inge," a suspected Sinaloa Cartel leader who allegedly headed a cell responsible for some of the group's synthetic drug production in the capital city. Four of his associates were also detained.
Authorities seized various precursor chemicals used to illegally produce fentanyl, weapons and ammunition, two vehicles, 86,000 Mexican pesos (around $4,000) and nearly $15,000.
Illegal fentanyl seizures in Mexico have risen sharply in recent years, particularly along the US-Mexico border. Through the end of September 2021, authorities had seized more than 1,200 kilograms of the synthetic drug across the country, according to data from Mexico's National Guard. This is around 25 percent more than the nearly 1,000 kilograms seized by authorities during the last six years combined between 2015 and 2020, according to data compiled by the civil society group Mexico United against Crime (México Unido Contra la Delincuencia - MUCD).
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The latest fentanyl seizure is emblematic of the ability of Mexico's organized crime groups to adapt and ramp up production as the synthetic drug becomes one of the main staples of their drug trafficking portfolio.
"These traffickers already have the expertise with methamphetamine production, and that knowledge is refined and increases over time as they adjust to the needs of the market. From there, it's just an improvement in productivity," said Jaime Arredondo, a professor at the University of Victoria and researcher with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
To be sure, synthetic opioids have become the primary driver of the drug overdose crisis in the United States. Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 93,331 drug overdose deaths, driven primarily by illegal fentanyl, which has come to dominate the US opioid market.
"The drug market has evolved, and production in Mexico seems to be mirroring those shifts in the United States," according to Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, an expert on organized crime and the head of Security Research Programs at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
The timing of the supposedly record-setting bust is also curious. Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as part of a "high-level security dialogue." This came shortly after the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a public safety alert about the "sharp increase" of counterfeit fentanyl pills in the country, the "vast majority" of which are produced in Mexico, according to anti-drug officials.
US-Mexico security relations have been anything but friendly as of late, and the fentanyl seizure could be Mexico's response to growing pressure to confront trafficking of the drug - one of the few security priorities the two countries can agree on.
The seizure was heralded as historic and presented in a way that was sure to capture headlines, and it did. However, photos shared by authorities show various bags of what appear to be illegal fentanyl pills, which Aredondo said are rarely pure fentanyl.
"The main psychoactive ingredient is fentanyl, yes, but it's extremely rare to see a pill that is 90 to 99 percent fentanyl. It's almost always mixed with other fillers," he told InSight Crime. To be sure, an October 2019 report by the DEA's Fentanyl Signature Profiling Program (FSPP) found that, of 106 tablets obtained from seizures in the United States and analyzed, "the average tablet contained 1.7 mg of fentanyl ... [and] approximately 75 percent of tablet exhibits contained a combination of acetaminophen, dipyrone, lactose, and mannitol," the report stated.
There's no doubting the significance of the seizure - both for Mexico and the United States - but experts said context and perspective matter. "It looks like Mexican authorities may be trying to talk up their ability to dismantle a synthetic drug lab with the type of production capability to produce so many pills," Farfán-Méndez said, "but it was only a matter of time before we saw something like this in Sinaloa."