Authorities in Mexico's northern state of Sinaloa have made a string of synthetic drug lab busts, underscoring how the state has emerged as a fentanyl and methamphetamine production hub.
Between June 3 and 8, members of the Mexican Army seized a total of 16 clandestine labs across a number of towns near the municipalities of Badiraguato, Cosalá and Elota in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa, according to separate news releases from the Defense Ministry.
In the most recent discovery, authorities seized 2,000 liters of suspected methamphetamine from one lab near the state's border with Durango, among other equipment. At the other labs, officials found dozens of 50-liter metal and plastic drums used to hold precursor chemicals like sulfuric acid, as well as tanks, reactors and other plumbing infrastructure. Vehicles to transport the finished methamphetamine and fentanyl were also seized.
However, no arrests were announced in connection to the drug labs.
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In recent years, authorities have uncovered more synthetic drug labs in Sinaloa, the home turf of the Sinaloa Cartel, than in any other Mexican state, according to data from the Defense Ministry. Official data accessed by Milenio showed that Sinaloa was among the three northern states — alongside Baja California and Sonora — where almost 90 percent of fentanyl seizures have been concentrated since the end of 2018 and the start of this year.
As InSight Crime has reported, both the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) are the primary criminal actors engaged in synthetic drug production. But the quantity of synthetic drug labs seen in Sinaloa suggests the Sinaloa Cartel may now be leading the charge.
InSight Crime Analysis
Sinaloa’s geographic location on Mexico’s Pacific coast makes it a strategic point for nearly every stage in the production chain of synthetic drugs.
First, the state is home to the Port of Mazatlán, one of the country’s major container ports that services maritime trade between Mexico and other countries across Asia and Europe. Precursor chemicals used to produce fentanyl and methamphetamine arrive at the port primarily from China and India, but also from other source countries like Germany.
Second, Federal Highway 15 acts as a major south-to-north thoroughfare, cutting from Mazatlán through the heart of Sinaloa and eventually connecting to Nogales in Sonora state on the US-Mexico border. This not only allows criminal groups like the Sinaloa Cartel to transport precursor chemicals to production sites hidden in rural areas – and sometimes in plain sight, such as within city homes in the capital, Culiacán – but also to transfer the finished product to its primary destination: the United States.
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Criminal groups routinely exploit such highway routes connecting Mexico to the United States to move drugs over the border. The drugs are most commonly concealed in hidden compartments in passenger vehicles or among legitimate goods on tractor-trailers traveling through ports of entry. To be sure, a recent six-month analysis from the American Immigration Council of fentanyl seizures reported at the southwest border by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) found that passenger vehicles were by far the most common smuggling method.
This connectivity has permitted a steady flow of synthetic drugs to keep up with US demand. New estimates published last month by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put the total number of drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021 at more than 107,000, representing a 15 percent increase from the then-record total seen in 2020. Illegally manufactured synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to drive these deaths amid growing production in Mexico.
This mass production is also starting to have knock-on effects in Mexico, and not just on the border. Drug users in border cities like Tijuana have been increasingly exposed to fentanyl, leading to a rise in drug overdoses. But in May, health officials in the Sinaloa state capital detected the first three fentanyl overdose deaths ever recorded there, evidence that the drug has also started to appear in the state's local drug supply.
On a recent reporting trip through Sinaloa, a range of sources, from health officials to substance abuse workers and government officials, expressed concern that fentanyl may soon have a more severe impact on local drug dynamics in the state.