Mexican cartels create new border headache for Trump as they switch from cocaine to deadly synthetic drugs

Deborah Bonello
A boy rides his bike along a razor-wire-covered border wall that separates Arizona from Mexico - AP

Enrique, wearing braces on his teeth and a black cap, talks quietly and carefully as he describes how he 'cooks' fentanyl.

The materials are bought from China and Germany over the internet, delivered to his home town in northern Mexico and prepared into a block of powder to send north, feeding America's insatiable demand for synthetic opioids.

For the last 50 years cocaine and heroin have been the principle exports driving the growth of Cartels and their reign of terror in Mexico and across the border into the US.

But now, fueled by the opioid crisis that has swept across America, the gangs here in mexico have a new - and much simpler - way of making money.

"Clients in the US are asking for fentanyl right now. There is a lot of opium paste in the market because not that many people are buying it anymore. They’re buying fentanyl instead," Enrique says.

In an attempt to justify calling a national emergency to build his wall across the Mexican border President Trump has himself mentioned the fentanyl "invasion".

But his efforts to erect a barrier to stop the flow may be woefully misplaced.

Mr Trump's argument ignores the fact that most illegal substances enter the United States through legal ports of entry - something the his own Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have pointed out to him to no avail.

Yet recent drug market trends in the state of Sinaloa and throughout Mexico suggest that neither a reinforced border wall or the high-profile take down of Guzmán (who was found guilty in a New York court of, amongst other crimes, running the criminal organization based here) will do much to stem the production and flow of drugs north.

Fentanyl  (a legal version of which is produced by pharmaceutical companies) as well as similar synthetic opioids killed some 28,000 Americans in 2017, according to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Addicts in the United States who initially switched from prescription painkillers to Mexican heroin are now eschewing it in favour of something stronger: fentanyl.

Enrique says he works with associates to from the city of Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa that Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzmán calls home

The problem for Mexican and US law enforcement is that drug cartels need to produce and smuggle way less fentanyl than they do heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana to make huge profits. Mexico has so far taken little initiative around detecting and addressing its production, and the fact that it is being smuggled either in pill form or in small amounts make it harder to detect by authorities on both sides of the border.

A chemical specialist in a protective suit is seen at a clandestine drug processing laboratory of fentanyl located in the Azcapotzalco Credit:  REUTERS

That said, seizures of fentanyl on Mexico’s south west border with the United States have been spiking -- pointing to Mexico’s growing importance in the market and the growing amount of fentanyl moving north. During 2016 and 2017, three quarters of the total amount of fentanyl seized by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was at its Southwest border. Officials there have seen seizures grow by some 700 percent, spiking from six in 2015 to 54 in 2017. 

Investigations by InSight Crime – a think tank that studies organized crime in the Americas - suggests that the organization founded by El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as the other strongest criminal organization in Mexico, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, are investing in the fentanyl business.

Workers in a poppy field high up in the mountains of Sinaloa and several hour’s drive from the city of Culiacán told the same story. They spoke as they worked, cutting thin lines around the ripe buds of the poppy flowers with improvised razors. They would return the next day to scrape away the paste that will ooze out of the bud overnight.

They say that the price of the poppy paste that will later be processed into heroin has dropped from some 36,000 (USD 1,865) pesos per kilo to a mere 10,000 (USD 500) pesos in the last few years.  Chiva sintética – or synthetic heroin – is the new cash cow and killing the heroin business.

“The price started to fall as soon as synthetic heroin started appearing around three years ago – it’s affected us all,” said one farmer who didn’t want to be named.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, center, fires a modified painted ball gun during a tour of the US-Mexico border

Thousands of families in these mountains - where El Chapo is loved and considered a generous benefactor not a criminal -  have cultivated poppy for generations. When the opioid crisis in the United States began to take hold after 2000, demand for heroin rose. But those days are over for now, although the  impoverished famers we spoke to will continue to plant poppy for as long as they can sell the paste they harvest, at whatever price.

The blame for the opioid crisis currently ravaging the United States lies at the feet of the powerful pharmaceutical companies who began marketing and encouraging the prescription of powerful opioids without the necessary caution. The vast majority of fentanyl now being abused by addicts in the United States is getting to them direct in the mail from China. But Mexico’s importance in supplying the deadly opioid is on the rise, even though the purity of the drug detected on the southwest United States border is way lower than the version coming in through direct mail.

Crucially, experts say that extending the border wall isn’t going to do much to bring down its presence on the streets. The United States’ own Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that the majority of illegal drugs enter the country through legal ports of entry such as sea ports and legal border crossings. Trump dismissed this fact in his speech as ‘lies’, but current trends dictate that closing up openings in the wall is not going to stem drug smuggling.

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