Seizures of the lethal drug fentanyl spiked this year in Mexico as overdoses caused by the synthetic opioid climbed to record highs in the United States.
Authorities confiscated 1,225 kilos of fentanyl through September 2021, according to a report by the Mexican newspaper Milenio that cites the Defense Ministry. That’s compared with a total of 1,523 kilos seized over the prior two years combined.
Long a leading supplier of heroin to the U.S., Mexico's criminal underworld has focused on the production of fentanyl in recent years as the market for the poppy-based opiate collapsed and demand for synthetics skyrocketed. The drug has proved to be a boon for the country’s criminal syndicates, and accounts for the lion’s share of illegally produced fentanyl consumed by drug users in the United States.
In 2020, drug overdoses killed at least 93,000 Americans, the highest total ever and an increase of 30 percent over the year before, the largest bump in history. Experts attributed the rise in fatalities to effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as increased isolation, as well as the increasing prevalence of fentanyl in drugs sold on America’s streets.
The opioid crisis in the U.S traces its roots back to the turn of the century, when loose regulations on the distribution of prescription drugs, in particular synthetic opioids such as Oxycontin, led to an explosion in opioid dependency. Americans across the nation sought out mostly Mexican-produced heroin as an alternative to those pain pills once they were hooked, and criminal organizations saw an opportunity to create stronger heroin for the market that was laced with fentanyl.
But increasingly, the deadly opioid is now being detected in other drugs, which is helping to push up overdoses across the board.
Mexico’s production of opioids dates back more than a hundred years when Chinese immigrants introduced poppy plants to produce opium. Poppy cultivation gained a foothold in Pacific states like Sinaloa and Guerrero, where entire villages grew to depend upon the earnings from the sale of the plant’s resin.
As Mexican drug cartels grew in power, they tapped the existing production capacity within the country and cornered a large share of the heroin market in the U.S. But over the past decade, fentanyl use has increased because it is cheaper to produce and much more potent than heroin.
As a result, the wholesale price of heroin has plummeted, slashing the profits of poppy farmers so much that many can no longer make a living from growing the plant.
Fentanyl is now the number one cause of overdose deaths in the US. The high number of fatalities is a result of its potency as well as the increasing prevalence of drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines and counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl. The Drug Enforcement Administration considers 2 milligrams of fentanyl to be a potentially lethal dose.
The DEA has been working to cut off the supply of fentanyl, often through joint operations with Mexican authorities. This includes targeting the chemical distributors that have been providing drug cartels with the ingredients needed to produce the drug. It is also the illicit fentanyl that is bleeding out of Mexico into the United States that makes the bilateral security relationship - which hit a wall last year after the indictment of Mexico’s former defense chief - so pressing.
Mexico has also ramped up security at the ports where the precursor chemicals arrive from source nations such as India and China, putting the Navy in charge of operating the country’s ports. The uptick in seizures could reflect increased interdiction as well as an increase in production in Mexico. But the surge in overdoses in the U.S. suggests that attempts to limit the flow of the drug have thus far fallen short.
Top Mexican and U.S. officials met in Mexico City last week in an effort to mend fences on security cooperation. Among the plans that Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard outlined was a joint effort to improve control over shipping containers and detect chemical precursors.
Fentanyl is largely an American consumption problem, but the production of the drug and its flow through Mexico on its way north is also generating a small domestic use market, mostly in border cities like Tijuana. But if fentanyl starts to seep into other drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, as is increasingly being seen in the U.S., it could become a much bigger domestic consumption problem for Mexico too.
Ebrard acknowledged that risk after the meeting last week with US officials: “We want to avoid the proliferation of consumption of cheaper drugs that is on the rise in both our nations,” he said.