Authorities in the United States have sanctioned a Mexican criminal group for trafficking illicit fentanyl into the country, but the designation passes over some of the complexities behind the smuggling and marketing of the deadly synthetic opioid.
The US Treasury Department announced that it had sanctioned the Nueva Familia Michoacana and two of the group’s alleged leaders, Johnny and José Alfredo Hurtado Olascoaga, for their role in trafficking illicit fentanyl, according to a government press release published November 17.
Under the leadership of the brothers, the Nueva Familia Michoacana -- a splinter group of the once-powerful Familia Michoacana -- allegedly operates across dozens of municipalities in the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, Morelos, and Mexico, and smuggles cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and illicit fentanyl into the United States.
US officials directly targeted the illicit fentanyl trafficked by the organization, which also “now markets ‘rainbow fentanyl,’” according to Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson. In August of this year, US anti-drug officials claimed this “new” trafficking method was “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults.”
At least one of the recently sanctioned brothers has been on the radar of authorities for more than two decades. A court in Florida indicted Johnny Hurtado Olascoaga on cocaine trafficking charges in June 2000. However, he has not yet been arrested or charged with new drug trafficking crimes related to his alleged role in leading the Nueva Familia Michoacana.
InSight Crime Analysis
The latest sanctions handed down by US authorities offer a window into the world of illicit fentanyl trafficking from Mexico to the United States. Yet they only provided part of the picture.
Authorities said that the Nueva Familia Michoacana was the group “behind the increasing US presence of rainbow fentanyl.” However, Mexico’s organized crime landscape is more complex than that. It’s more likely that there are a number of groups responsible for the trafficking of so-called “rainbow fentanyl” into the United States.
Both the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) are known to be mass-producing powerful synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl. In fact, a large portion of the clandestine drug labs seized since Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president have been located in Sinaloa, where the Nueva Familia Michoacana does not have a presence.
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The idea that Mexican drug trafficking groups are deliberately targeting children and young people with this colored fentanyl is also misguided.
"It's not a marketing tool for children. Traffickers are just replicating classic strategies to distinguish their product from other drugs," said Jaime Arredondo, a professor at the University of Victoria and researcher with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
Indeed, in recent years illicit fentanyl has driven drug overdose deaths in the United States largely because users were unaware dealers had mixed lethal quantities into fake M30 Oxycodone pills, known as “blues,” or with other drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.
However, with some US drug users now beginning to seek out fentanyl directly, the coloring acts as a way to identify the product for those who want it, as well as for those who do not. Not only that, but the colors make it harder for US dealers to mix the illicit fentanyl with white, powdered drugs.
*InSight Crime investigator Sara García contributed reporting to this article.