Regardless of whether Mexican criminal organizations are synthesizing fentanyl at home or are getting it from abroad, the Mexican government’s stiff posture is more about its fraught history with the United States on drug matters than on the reality of the fentanyl trade itself.
The controversy got its steam during a morning news briefing on March 9, during which Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told reporters that Mexico’s criminal groups do not synthesize fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that has left hundreds of thousands dead of overdoses in the United States in the last half-decade and is already starting to take its toll on Mexico’s northern cities.
“Here, we do not produce fentanyl nor have fentanyl consumption. We’re really sorry about what is happening in the United States, but why don’t they … combat fentanyl distribution?” he said.
Still, the debate around whether fentanyl is synthesized in Mexico goes back years. And it is laced with problems regarding data, semantics, and the history of US-Mexico relations.
China used to supply the vast amount of fentanyl Mexican criminal groups obtained and trafficked to the United States, mostly via blue, counterfeit Oxycodone pills known as M30s. It came hidden in shipping containers, concealed in people’s luggage, or buried in a FedEx parcel. The same was true for the United States, which got a vast amount of fentanyl directly from China via the US Postal service and private carriers to the point where, in the early days of the fentanyl crisis, most of it came directly from China, according to data collected by the US State Department, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Homeland Security Investigations Office, among others.
This appears to have changed when China, first in 2017 and then again in 2019, enacted a series of measures to regulate the manufacturing and trade of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. Data shows that since then, seizures at US postal facilities dropped precipitously. Simultaneously, seizures of fentanyl crossing the US southern border skyrocketed. They also jumped significantly in Mexico. All of this pointed toward the production of fentanyl in Mexico.
What’s more, there were also numerous seizures of what are known as precursor chemicals entering Mexico or inside Mexico. In one case, a US customs officer was captured with ANPP, a fentanyl precursor, while trying to cross the border. When authorities went to the post office in the United States where he’d collected the chemicals, they found records of 13 other pickups.
In another case in May 2020, Mexican authorities seized almost 170 kilograms of ANPP and NPP (a precursor to ANPP) in the Ensenada port in Baja California. In a more recent case, the Navy seized more than three tons of propionyl chloride — a substance that acts as an intermediary chemical in fentanyl synthesis — at the Manzanillo port. And between 2021 and 2022, the Army seized almost a ton of ANPP in Sinaloa, what is considered the epicenter of synthetic drug production in the country.
Still, there are problems with the data. Neither the United States nor Mexico gives estimates of the seized fentanyl’s purity. Purity is a critical issue since what is seized in Mexico or on the border normally has less than 10% purity, and what is seized coming directly from China has more than 90% purity.
Roughly speaking, for every 100 kilos of pure fentanyl seized from China, there is a ton of fentanyl seized coming from Mexico. In sum, if we look at seizures as a whole and account for purity, we can see the difference between the amount of fentanyl seized coming from Mexico versus that coming from China is closer to a three-to-two ratio — an indication that fentanyl is still coming from China in significant amounts.
What’s more, the Mexican government says it has not found any fentanyl “laboratories” in Mexico. But determining exactly what the Mexican government means by the word laboratory is difficult. This gets us to the next problem: semantics.
In 2018, US and Mexican authorities began tracking several chemists in Mexico who by all indications appeared to be working with a large Mexican criminal organization to experiment with making fentanyl.
The experiments would have been groundbreaking but not surprising. Mexican criminal organizations pioneered the mass production of high-quality, high-purity methamphetamine by bankrolling similar experiments over a ten-year period when the Mexican government put significantly stiffer controls on the principal precursors used to make methamphetamine at the time.
Now it appeared they were trying to move in the same direction with fentanyl. And in the 2018 investigation, the agents tracked as many as three chemists and several dozen others, who they deemed “cooks,” operators who can follow simple, specific instructions — in other words, a recipe.
The investigation culminated in a December 2018 raid on a Mexico City home. Four were arrested, chemicals were confiscated, and the experiments were thwarted.
There have been many raids since, but none as revealing as that 2018 raid. These days, the reported “fentanyl laboratories” being seized are really pill-pressing facilities, not chemical synthesizing laboratories.
The confusion is promulgated by both the authorities and the media. Even though the Mexican government distinguishes between pill-pressing facilities and chemical laboratories, in their public statements following raids, Mexican authorities frequently jumble the information into hastily-written missives that do not even disaggregate methamphetamine and fentanyl laboratory chemicals or seizures.
For its part, the media conflate these various processes and seizures. A laboratory is a laboratory regardless of whether it presses pills or produces methamphetamine or synthesizes fentanyl. It is clickbait, synthetic-drug style.
Disentangling the pieces becomes even more difficult when there is another process that may be employed to synthesize fentanyl, something between getting finished fentanyl and synthesizing it from scratch. This process has been described to us by criminal investigators as “confection.”
A fentanyl confection involves getting high-quality precursors from abroad — mostly from China but also from European and Indian chemical companies — then mixing them to create fentanyl in simple, kitchen-style labs. This may have been what those chemists were doing with all those cooks: getting them ready to take the chemical process over the proverbial finish line.
But we will probably never know because politics have swallowed any pretense of cooperation and transparency on these important matters.
In 2011, following the brutal attack and burning of a Monterrey casino that left 52 people dead, President Felipe Calderón gave a fiery speech. Calderón was a staunch ally of the United States, but he spent a good portion of his speech blasting his neighbor.
“Part of the problem…has to do with [Mexico] sharing a border with the largest drug consumer in the world, who pays criminals billions of dollars every year to satisfy its huge drug demand,” he said.
The attack had been perpetrated by the Zetas, a criminal group with a wide portfolio of economic interests, including extortion. But the burning of the casino, which was probably an illegal business itself that had been allowed to operate because of corrupt Mexican institutions, had little to do with US drug consumption.
A decade later, Mexico has President López Obrador, Calderón’s rival back in the 2006 elections and, in many ways, his ideological opposite. Yet, he espouses much the same message.
During the same press conference in which López Obrador said the United States was receiving more pure fentanyl than Mexico, for instance, he added that the fentanyl problem could be owed to a lack of “hugs” in US households.
“If a young person decides to consume fentanyl it’s because they’re missing affection and attention. They live in solitude, in abandonment,” he said.
The insensitivity of Mexican presidents is to be expected, especially when US politicians and officials so frequently use them as punching bags for their own gain. López Obrador, like his predecessors, has also lashed out at the United States for not stopping the flow of guns to Mexico, which help fuel the violence.
US politicians, for their part, have not helped. In Texas, they declared Mexican criminal organizations terrorists, something some US senators have also taken up, along with a smattering of calls for the United States to send troops.
To be sure, fentanyl is an extreme emergency, but one that requires cooperation and transparency, not obfuscation and saber-rattling.
*With reporting by Victoria Dittmar.
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