Floating in a small fishing boat along Mexico’s Pacific Coast, their faces obscured by t-shirts and ski masks, the four Sinaloa Cartel members looked like pirates. This was months before the pandemic, when tourists were still sunbathing on the beach a few miles away. The masks were to disguise themselves as they smuggled ashore the chemicals used to make fentanyl.
VICE News gained access to a Sinaloa Cartel fentanyl trafficking operation for a few days last year, during the production of new podcast series called “Painkiller: America’s Fentanyl Crisis.” We watched masked cartel members hauling bundles of precursor chemicals out of the ocean, interviewed local bosses, and followed the process of cooking fentanyl into heroin, a combination of drugs that has fueled a surge in overdose deaths across the U.S.
Fentanyl can be made entirely with chemicals, and it’s more powerful than heroin, which is derived from opium poppy plants. While some illicit fentanyl still comes to the U.S. through the mail from China, a crackdown last year on the trade by Beijing has accelerated the outsourcing of production to clandestine labs in Mexico. Chinese traffickers supplying shipments of ingredients, along with the precursors used to cook methamphetamine.
“All the drug traffickers in Sinaloa chip in, they know that the shipment is going to arrive on a given day,” one cartel member told us. “The amount of money is enormous.”
The illicit cargo is offloaded from a large container ship in watertight bundles, which can float for hours until the timing is right for a pickup. The coordinates and tracking information is relayed by phone to a crew on the shore. The masked men we saw were sent to fish the bundles out of the ocean and haul them to the land. Another group then takes the chemicals to “offices” or safehouses in the area.
Mexican cartels have been involved in the heroin trade for decades, but the arrival of fentanyl has made the business even more lucrative. Fentanyl is used to boost the potency of heroin, creating a product that can be diluted by dealers all down the supply chain and still retain value. The risk for users is that it leads to unpredictable and deadly doses.
At a clandestine lab on the outskirts of Culiacán, Sinaloa, in the territory of cartel boss Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, we watched cartel members blend fentanyl into brown powdered heroin. The process was haphazard, involving large metal cookware and eyeballed measurements. The cooks sipped cans of Tecate Light beer throughout the process, as armed men stood guard. The finished product got refined into powder and packed into taped-up bricks, which were stashed in the trunk of a car, ultimately headed north to the U.S. border.
Ray Donovan, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s New York division, estimates that 80-90% of the fentanyl and heroin sold in New York City is produced by the Sinaloa Cartel. Donovan coordinated the operation to capture Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and he said the former cartel boss was “one of the main players pushing fentanyl into the United States.”
Despite the successful extraditions and convictions of kingpins like El Chapo, Donovan said, the illicit fentanyl business is still booming.
“These are international criminal organizations that are interconnected because of globalization and technology,” Donovan said. “It’s ultimately greed and money and power. That's what it comes down to.
Listen to all episodes of Painkiller: America’s Fentanyl Crisis for free on Spotify now.
Video produced by Miguel Fernández-Flores and Keegan Hamilton. Edited by Brittany Ross.
Cover: Cartel members mix fentanyl with heroin in a clandestine lab near Culiacán, Sinaloa. Photo by Miguel Fernández-Flores.