- A record-setting bust in October underscores how Mexico has become a hub for fentanyl.
- The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generational cartels have increased production of the drug, a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic.
- A flood of fentanyl into the US has helped drive overdose deaths to new levels.
Ciudad Juárez, México – In late October, Mexican authorities seized a record-breaking quantity of fentanyl at a single laboratory in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, landing a major blow to the Sinaloa Cartel, officials said.
But security analysts and cartel operatives say the bust was only proof of the “unstoppable” production of fentanyl in Mexico.
Mexican soldiers found 118 kilograms, or roughly 260 pounds, of fentanyl worth roughly $50 million in a lab on the outskirts of Culiacán, a city known for being Sinaloa’s Cartel stronghold.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent, according to US authorities. Mexican drug cartels have relied on fentanyl more than any other drug to keep profits rising.
During the raid, authorities arrested Armando Bátiz Camarena, aka “El Inge,” a known Sinaloa Cartel leader in charge of fentanyl production and shipment to the US, along with four of his men.
Authorities also seized four bags of fentanyl precursor in paste form, over 4 pounds of Inositol, a powder used as a cutting agent for drugs, five firearms, and more than $14,000 and 160 Venezuelan bolivars.
Although this was the biggest fentanyl bust in Mexico’s history, it might not have any effect on the drug trade. It also may only be a sign of how Mexico is becoming the biggest player in fentanyl production.
“If Mexican authorities seized more than 100 kilograms, it means criminals are producing at least several tons,” Manelich Castilla, former commissioner of Mexico’s Federal Police, told Insider.
Fentanyl is easier to produce than cocaine or heroin since it requires just a few chemicals and some very rudimentary equipment, Castilla explained.
“It is very easily produced and 20 times more profitable than any other drug. You only need a very small dosage to create addiction,” he said.
Manelich said that the fact that small doses of fentanyl could provide such intense effects means it’s easier to smuggle.
“To transport fentanyl you don’t need big shipments. Now you can hide a very profitable load inside a trailer container and it would be almost impossible to find,” he said.
Mexico’s defense secretary said earlier this year that fentanyl could be made in a few hours and was worth about $5,000 a kilogram in Mexico — a price that rises to about $200,000 in the US.
In a sign of the scale of production, US authorities intercepted 17,584 pounds of meth and 389 pounds of fentanyl in a tractor-trailer crossing into the US near San Diego on November 17. Both amounts would be the largest seizures of either drug in the US in 2020 or 2021, US officials said.
A Sinaloa Cartel operative in Culiacán who asked not to be identified told Insider that the busted lab was “very small” compared to production around Sinaloa.
“They busted one, and immediately some other 10 started operating not very far from that one,” the operative said.
The operative said fentanyl labs operate on a “mobile basis.”
“Some years ago the old bosses used to set established fentanyl labs inside warehouses or abandoned houses, but we learned that once they busted that lab, the loss was too much,” the operative said. “So now we set up mobile labs in the middle of the woods and cook only small batches in several labs at the same time to build a big shipment.”
On a trip to Sinaloa state in early 2021, Insider visited a fentanyl lab operated by the Sinaloa Cartel. One of the lab operators described how cooks are trained to mix fentanyl “according to US needs.”
“The cook learned from a Chinese man brought all the way here” by the cartel, the operator told Insider, adding that the cook “is the only one who knows the recipe.”
“But many started dying because we still didn’t have the right recipe, and some of them were not aware of the potency of the new product,” the operator added.
According to Manelich, most of the precursors needed to make fentanyl come from “the Asia region” but not exclusively from China. Shipments arrive by sea “inside one of many, many cargo [containers] processed at the port” in Colima state on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
A leaked 2019 DEA report called the Sinaloa cartel “a prominent producer and trafficker of Mexico-based fentanyl” into the US. The powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel has also ramped up its production of fentanyl.
The US Treasury Department recently sanctioned four men it said were CJNG members “operating through the port of Manzanillo in Colima” to import fentanyl precursors and other drugs.
“It is impossible to search all these shipments arriving into Mexico. What we need is a list of priority targets to know by name who are we looking for, who is in charge of these operations,” Manelich said.
Fentanyl seizures in Mexico have risen over the past year, according to Mexican officials. In 2020, authorities seized 1,300 kilograms of the drug, compared to 222 kilograms in 2019 — an uptick of more than 400%.
More than 30,000 people in the US died of overdoses involving fentanyl in 2018, making it one of the most dangerous illicit drugs in history. Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have pushed total overdose deaths in the US to new levels.
Manelich said the only way out is a “coordinated agenda regarding addictions and security.”
“Today Mexico does not have a policy or a campaign to point out the traffickers and the producers. The present administration’s vision is very limited when compared to how things are done in the US,” Manelich said.