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Mexican cartels have turned to fentanyl Smugglers are flooding the border with opioids

A Mexican soldier stands guard in Tijuana (David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A Mexican soldier stands guard in Tijuana (David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


December 6, 2022   7 mins

In the hills of Mexico City’s luxurious Lomas suburb, close to an embassy and UN offices, is a white pillared mansion that was the site of the world’s biggest ever drug cash bust. In 2007, Mexican federal agents stormed through its ornamental gates to discover a mountain of $205 million in bills, along with pesos, Euros and Hong Kong dollars. It did not, however, belong to one of Mexico’s scarred and bloodthirsty drug lords from the mountains; instead it was the property of the suited Chinese-born businessman Zhenli Ye Gon.

Ye Gon was making his fortune, say US and Mexican prosecutors, by importing the flu medicine pseudoephedrine from Chinese labs and selling it to Mexican gangsters who cooked it into crystal meth to traffic to the United States. A fan of high-stakes poker, Ye Gon was then jetting to Las Vegas, where he lost $125 million at tables (a casino was later ordered to hand over much of this to the US government) and bought a million-dollar home for a casino hostess. After a lengthy legal battle, Ye Gon was extradited back here to Mexico, where he sits in a high-security prison on drugs, organised crime, money laundering, and weapons charges.

At the time, when I covered the story, Ye Gon appeared to be a passing novelty. Importing chemicals from China contrasted with the cocaine and heroin trade I was investigating, in which you can go to the mountains and witness the peasant farmers harvest coca leaves and opium poppies. It’s apparent now, though, that Ye Gon was a pioneer, and that Mexican cartels have followed his lead to reshape their entire industry — with perilous consequences for Americans.

Since that record bust, Mexican traffickers have gradually shifted the core of their business from plant-based drugs to synthetic drugs — those created using man-made chemicals. These include meth and illegally-made fentanyl as well as others, such as ketamine. Synthetic drugs are cheaper to produce and more lethal, with fentanyl many times more powerful than heroin. To churn out these synthetics, cartels followed Ye Gon’s lead to forge an unholy alliance with shady elements of the Asian chemical industry.

The scales gradually tilted until 2018, when US agents on the border seized more crystal meth than cocaine (both considered “uppers” and party drugs), and 2021, when they also seized more fentanyl than heroin (both considered “downers”). The trend has accelerated in 2022, with US agents nabbing 14,000 pounds of fentanyl, which was seven times the amount of heroin, and 175,000 pounds of meth, two-and-a-half times the amount of cocaine.

Marijuana was once a big cash crop for Mexican traffickers, but border seizures have plummeted since 2012, when US states began legalising recreational weed. Further south, Colombia is still producing enormous amounts of cocaine, but much is now going to the booming European market. Meanwhile, the biggest shipments to, and profits from, the United States are in synthetics. This paradigm shift has transformed the logistics of Mexican drug trafficking.

Traditionally, drug trafficking relied on plantations of poppies and coca leaves, which are vulnerable to aerial crop spraying. Today, the mass production of synthetic drugs involves two behemoths of globalisation: supply chains of cargo ships, and the pharmaceutical industry. Pacific cities such as Manzanillo, Mexico’s biggest container port, have become bloody trafficking hubs. Pill mills can be anywhere, from quiet Mexican suburbs to right on the border itself.

The cartel shift to synthetics coincides closely with the soaring rise in US drug deaths. Back in 2007, about 27,000 Americans lost their lives in overdoses. By 2021, the number had quadrupled to 107,000 deaths. The majority, 71,000, involved fentanyl or other synthetic opioids. The second highest, 32,000, involved “psychostimulants” including meth. Traffickers are also mixing fentanyl into cocaine and heroin, causing more deaths with those. The rise in overdoses is especially sharp over the last five years, just as busts of fentanyl on the border have soared.

But beyond the stats is the human pain. Most of the victims are in the prime of their lives and some are teenagers. Millions of parents, siblings, children, and friends bear the loss.

There are various forces behind the US overdose epidemic. Pharmaceutical giants dished out too many legal opioids that fuelled addiction, as courts continue to hear. Shutting down industries in the Rust Belt drove workers to despair, and the pandemic and lockdown were terrible for mental health. But it is hard to deny that changes in the supply of illegal drugs — from cocaine and heroin to synthetic meth and fentanyl — are a major factor behind the ballooning death toll.

Like everything in American life, the overdose epidemic gets dragged into partisan politics. Republicans have sought to take a hard line, lobbying the White House to classify fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction and Mexican cartels as terrorist groups. In their midterm attack ads, Republican candidates tied fentanyl deaths to illegal immigration. Democrats, meanwhile, have pushed hardest for “harm reduction” programmes, especially in deep-blue cities like San Francisco. But the level of open drug abuse there has drawn fire from both Republicans and moderate Democrats.

After covering the human catastrophe of narco violence here in Mexico for two decades, I have mixed feelings about the latest political row. I have long been a critic of the War on Drugs, which has failed to stop the drug trade while creating a huge black market for ultraviolent cartels. When US states began legalising marijuana, I celebrated it, thinking that the cartels and drug violence could slowly become a thing of the past.

But the rise of synthetics and the sheer level of overdose deaths have rattled my thinking. It is evident that Mexican traffickers, who work with corrupt officials here, are indeed pumping ever more perilous drugs northward. When cartels mainly moved cocaine and cannabis there was an argument, at least, that they were providing Americans with products they demanded. But with the perilous fentanyl, which some people take unwittingly, there is validity to the claim they are flooding poison over the border. The question remains, however, as to what can be done about it.

In Manzanillo, I sit and watch the vast container ships come into the bay from across the globe and line up to unload their cargo. Last year, the port handled more than 3 million TEU’s (20-foot container units) — a vast amount of cargo for synthetics and their precursors to be hidden in. In a restaurant in the port, I meet up with the owner of a freight company who brings goods in from China. Working in the port for decades, he says smuggling has always been rife but has evolved over time. Today, Mexico’s two most powerful mafias, the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel, operate there and are always looking for shippers to move their products. “This is the gateway to China and all of Asia,” he says. “They have to be here to get access to chemicals.”

Opioids or precursors can be hidden under a false bill of lading and disguised as a legitimate chemical, he explains. Customs inspectors have to bust open a container and run a test, and while they are doing that, other loads can get through. It can also be hard to keep up with all the different substances. The International Narcotics Control Board lists hundreds of precursors for synthetic drugs, and they are likely scratching the surface. Scientific papers say there are more than 1,400 variants of fentanyl, and that “every year new fentanyl analog compounds, or fentanyls, appear”.

Smugglers also have another technique, the shipper explains, which they call “remoras” or suckerfish, in which they bring in the contraband alongside legitimate cargo. Before the ship gets into port, the contraband is thrown over the side and taken ashore in small boats. It would, therefore, be difficult to stop the chemicals even if Mexican officials were all honest — which they are not. The shipper explains that intermediaries take bribes and deal with customs so that containers can pass straight through. “I can’t see this changing,” he said. “Only a dictatorship or invasion would stop this.”

President AndrĂ©s Manuel LĂłpez Obrador, known as AMLO, claims to fight corruption, and over the last two years he has put elite marine military units in charge of the ports to clamp down on trafficking. “It is translating to more security, less contraband, more decommissions of drugs, above all fentanyl and chemical drugs,” AMLO said in November visiting Manzanillo. “It used to be silver or lead,” he went on, referring to the silver of a bribe or the lead of a bullet. “Now this has changed.”

However, the quantity of drugs being seized on the US border signal that fentanyl and meth are still coming through Mexico in vast quantities. Furthermore, AMLO’s position on cartels and crime is muddled. On the one hand, he has boosted the power of the military, created a new National Guard, and kept soldiers on the streets. On the other hand, he has talked of the need to avoid fighting cartels, and to have “hugs not bullets”.

AMLO’s call for peace is understandable considering the carnage in Mexico. Since President Felipe Calderón launched a military crackdown on cartels in 2006, there have been firefights reminiscent of civil wars, more than 300,000 murders, mass graves, and thousands of disappearances. But in practice, “hugs not bullets” has meant allowing some gangsters to act with impunity. In 2019, after soldiers arrested Ovidio Guzmán, the son of kingpin “El Chapo”, on an indictment for trafficking drugs including crystal meth, hundreds of gunmen took to the streets of the city of Culiacán. In response, AMLO ordered Guzmán’s release. By bowing to cartel intimidation, AMLO has raised the spectre of a country that is militarised but where powerful gangsters still flout the law.

Washington has also put pressure on China to stop the chemicals at the source. In 2019, China classified all variants of fentanyl as controlled substances, fulfilling a promise to President Donald J. Trump. However, a US congressional advisory group concluded that Chinese chemists were getting round the ban. “Chinese traffickers are using various strategies to circumvent new regulations, including focusing on chemical precursors, relocating some manufacturing to India, rerouting precursor shipments through third countries, and leveraging marketing schemes to avoid detection,” says the report from 2021 by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

But given China denies its responsibility for the drug epidemic, what can be done about it? If Beijing really clamped down, it could probably reduce the supply in the short term. But there are other countries where precursors could be made. Moreover, as former DEA agent Leo Silva tells me, the cartels are looking to take their drug production to the next step. “These guys are now recruiting chemistry professors from universities so they can actually produce fentanyl in labs,” he says. “Their goal is to create the precursors in Mexico so they can also stop getting the precursors from China and dealing with them
 So they can produce more, and keep more profits.”

***

Order your copy of UnHerd’s first print edition here.


Ioan Grillo is a journalist based in Mexico and the author, most recently, of Blood Gun Money.

ioangrillo

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Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

Our pleasant president, Joseph R. Biden, has told us that “walls don’t work” and halted the building of the wall that Trump began, leaving millions in materials to rust in the desert. But these deaths cannot be laid at his door, but at the doors of those who voted for him. Those who support a passive killer are themselves murderers. Harsh, but true.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Biden’s son has likely snorted 10 kg of cocaine in his time. That’s not corrupt is it? I mean he was not selling it, or giving it to minors, or illegally buying weapons then…. just good old victimless crimes of procuring drugs and sex workers for the power guys the Family wanted to be influenced.

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

At an 8 ball a day that’s 2857 days…whilst the odd bump never hurt anyone that will make you feel rough! i expect even Anthony Keidis or Ozzy Osborne didn’t reach those milestones before getting clean. If true Biden Jnr will be on SSRIs the rest of his life and probably never have a full night’s sleep again (Which, unlike the popular entertainers above, he totally deserves). Ah, I am now told apparently his thing was crack, so if the 10KGs is pre -washing then its prob only 2kg of rocks by weight. The old school freebase was damn near pure and not the same as today’s crack – whiccis a cheap copy made with ammonia anbd baking powder and not a lot of fun IMO.

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

At an 8 ball a day that’s 2857 days…whilst the odd bump never hurt anyone that will make you feel rough! i expect even Anthony Keidis or Ozzy Osborne didn’t reach those milestones before getting clean. If true Biden Jnr will be on SSRIs the rest of his life and probably never have a full night’s sleep again (Which, unlike the popular entertainers above, he totally deserves). Ah, I am now told apparently his thing was crack, so if the 10KGs is pre -washing then its prob only 2kg of rocks by weight. The old school freebase was damn near pure and not the same as today’s crack – whiccis a cheap copy made with ammonia anbd baking powder and not a lot of fun IMO.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

A wall wouldn’t stop the drugs that come in via tunnels, ports, or official border crossings.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Biden’s son has likely snorted 10 kg of cocaine in his time. That’s not corrupt is it? I mean he was not selling it, or giving it to minors, or illegally buying weapons then…. just good old victimless crimes of procuring drugs and sex workers for the power guys the Family wanted to be influenced.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

A wall wouldn’t stop the drugs that come in via tunnels, ports, or official border crossings.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

Our pleasant president, Joseph R. Biden, has told us that “walls don’t work” and halted the building of the wall that Trump began, leaving millions in materials to rust in the desert. But these deaths cannot be laid at his door, but at the doors of those who voted for him. Those who support a passive killer are themselves murderers. Harsh, but true.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

This is a great article and it provides a good overview of the situation. Unfortunately, this article feels like ancient news. On one hand it is nice to acknowledge the crisis going and let the world know. On the other hand it feels like this should be common knowledge around the world already. Mexico has been in a state of semi-civil war for what feels like decades now and synthetic narcotics have been flooding United States streets for years.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt Hindman
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

True. Writing about the power and influence of the Mexican drug cartels is like complaining about chocolate being manufactured and distributed in Hershey, PA.
As long as there are billions of dollars to be made and spent, there will be plenty of government “officials” who look the other way.

Sudo Nim
Sudo Nim
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Also the author is wrong — legalising marijuana did not turn the cartels to fentanyl, what does he think, they are one trick ponies? They are exerting criminal control over the avocado trade for heavens sake. I would not touch an avocado these days, it might have fentanyl residue on it!
Also, cartels have moved marijuana grows from MX to USA, particularly CA where another chucklehead called Newsome is letting the cartels and other crime run rampant within CA. This myth about legalization of drugs will halt illegal drug trade is so utterly wrong — as has been proven time and time again. You can’t move in Norther Cali forests without worrying about running into an armed group protecting an illegal unlicensed grow.
As I always say, the liberals pave the road to hell with their good intentions.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

True. Writing about the power and influence of the Mexican drug cartels is like complaining about chocolate being manufactured and distributed in Hershey, PA.
As long as there are billions of dollars to be made and spent, there will be plenty of government “officials” who look the other way.

Sudo Nim
Sudo Nim
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Also the author is wrong — legalising marijuana did not turn the cartels to fentanyl, what does he think, they are one trick ponies? They are exerting criminal control over the avocado trade for heavens sake. I would not touch an avocado these days, it might have fentanyl residue on it!
Also, cartels have moved marijuana grows from MX to USA, particularly CA where another chucklehead called Newsome is letting the cartels and other crime run rampant within CA. This myth about legalization of drugs will halt illegal drug trade is so utterly wrong — as has been proven time and time again. You can’t move in Norther Cali forests without worrying about running into an armed group protecting an illegal unlicensed grow.
As I always say, the liberals pave the road to hell with their good intentions.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

This is a great article and it provides a good overview of the situation. Unfortunately, this article feels like ancient news. On one hand it is nice to acknowledge the crisis going and let the world know. On the other hand it feels like this should be common knowledge around the world already. Mexico has been in a state of semi-civil war for what feels like decades now and synthetic narcotics have been flooding United States streets for years.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt Hindman
Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago

I am with Trump – who had declared that Drug Dealers will get the Death Penalty if he gets his way. If this is for being an upper part of a crime syndicate then I am totally behind him.

”Trump calls for ‘quick’ death penalty for drug dealers as he describes US ‘going to hell very fast’’ from The Independent.ï»ż
Drugs kill people who OD, which is often very sad – but the real problem is they corrupt. Now I know virtually anyone in elected high positions is corrupt – not by drug money in USA, but by Corporate money – it is a sickness in the system and drugs will play more havoc if seeing what happens South of the Border, and how it is moving North of the Border, is not addressed.

Sudo Nim
Sudo Nim
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

No drugs in Singapore… I’ll give you one guess why.
Hint: four letter word, starts with an r, ends with an e.

Sudo Nim
Sudo Nim
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

No drugs in Singapore… I’ll give you one guess why.
Hint: four letter word, starts with an r, ends with an e.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago

I am with Trump – who had declared that Drug Dealers will get the Death Penalty if he gets his way. If this is for being an upper part of a crime syndicate then I am totally behind him.

”Trump calls for ‘quick’ death penalty for drug dealers as he describes US ‘going to hell very fast’’ from The Independent.ï»ż
Drugs kill people who OD, which is often very sad – but the real problem is they corrupt. Now I know virtually anyone in elected high positions is corrupt – not by drug money in USA, but by Corporate money – it is a sickness in the system and drugs will play more havoc if seeing what happens South of the Border, and how it is moving North of the Border, is not addressed.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

This article focusses on the supply side and does not even mention the demand part of the equation.

History says that a combination of lazy/corrupt doctors and a government-approved pharmaceutical industry created the addiction. So, now the addiction is just a fact and we must talk about walls.

This must be a defeatist approach because a demand for the opioids will keep cartels going for ever and ever, wall or no wall. Also, death sentences in the USA just don’t work. ‘Perps’ become heroes, sit in Death Row for years and even write books. The only real way to control this is to control the demand side, but that would not be an easy thing to do.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Not if the execution is summary.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Agreed. This is a symptom of a much larger problem, which we can’t discuss openly anymore. If the culture embraces “anything goes”, then anything will go.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

“There are various forces behind the US overdose epidemic. Pharmaceutical giants dished out too many legal opioids that fuelled addiction, as courts continue to hear. Shutting down industries in the Rust Belt drove workers to despair, and the pandemic and lockdown were terrible for mental health.”
That sounds to me like a mention of the demand part of the equation.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Not if the execution is summary.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Agreed. This is a symptom of a much larger problem, which we can’t discuss openly anymore. If the culture embraces “anything goes”, then anything will go.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

“There are various forces behind the US overdose epidemic. Pharmaceutical giants dished out too many legal opioids that fuelled addiction, as courts continue to hear. Shutting down industries in the Rust Belt drove workers to despair, and the pandemic and lockdown were terrible for mental health.”
That sounds to me like a mention of the demand part of the equation.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

This article focusses on the supply side and does not even mention the demand part of the equation.

History says that a combination of lazy/corrupt doctors and a government-approved pharmaceutical industry created the addiction. So, now the addiction is just a fact and we must talk about walls.

This must be a defeatist approach because a demand for the opioids will keep cartels going for ever and ever, wall or no wall. Also, death sentences in the USA just don’t work. ‘Perps’ become heroes, sit in Death Row for years and even write books. The only real way to control this is to control the demand side, but that would not be an easy thing to do.

John 0
John 0
1 year ago

Very good article. Governments are facilitating the drug industry in many ways, as noted. There are a lot of politicians in the U.S. who talk about “liberty” when abetting this destruction, but young people and addicts get manipulated.
We have to stop it.

John 0
John 0
1 year ago

Very good article. Governments are facilitating the drug industry in many ways, as noted. There are a lot of politicians in the U.S. who talk about “liberty” when abetting this destruction, but young people and addicts get manipulated.
We have to stop it.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
1 year ago

“When US states began legalising marijuana, I celebrated it, thinking that the cartels and drug violence could slowly become a thing of the past.”
Marijuana strains get stronger all the time, we’re now seeing lots of problems from addiction and other health impacts…. so the fighting might have subsided, but deaths have simply moved north from Mexico.
All the work done to stop the flow whether from Mexico or China or India is righteous work, but Westerners have made their choice between “upright” living versus absolute freedom of choice — and those freedoms will lead the West to destruction, sooner or later, one way or another.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
1 year ago

“When US states began legalising marijuana, I celebrated it, thinking that the cartels and drug violence could slowly become a thing of the past.”
Marijuana strains get stronger all the time, we’re now seeing lots of problems from addiction and other health impacts…. so the fighting might have subsided, but deaths have simply moved north from Mexico.
All the work done to stop the flow whether from Mexico or China or India is righteous work, but Westerners have made their choice between “upright” living versus absolute freedom of choice — and those freedoms will lead the West to destruction, sooner or later, one way or another.

John Sherbioni
John Sherbioni
1 year ago

On the west coast of Canada it is a daily occurrence to see people die, lie in their own filth and accept a life that is not really worth living. If we looked at the problem in the manner talked about here maybe we could educate the younger generation to understand how this is undermining our whole life style. We must be transparent about the situation and ask people to make choices that will help and not hinder their lifestyles

John Sherbioni
John Sherbioni
1 year ago

On the west coast of Canada it is a daily occurrence to see people die, lie in their own filth and accept a life that is not really worth living. If we looked at the problem in the manner talked about here maybe we could educate the younger generation to understand how this is undermining our whole life style. We must be transparent about the situation and ask people to make choices that will help and not hinder their lifestyles