Over the past several decades, the Mexican cartels have made a big push into the U.S. heroin market, and heroin from Mexico now accounts for some 90 percent of the wholesale seizures of that drug in the United States. While some South American and Southwest Asian heroin is still entering the country, the Mexicans have clearly dominated the market with their inexpensive and potent product. In the cocaine and even the methamphetamine trade, the Mexicans often work with other criminal groups in the United States on street-level retail sales. While they cooperate with other gangs to sell heroin in some cities, in many places, Mexican criminals own the entire distribution channel. The Mexicans have dramatically changed the methods used to distribute the drug. Users no longer have to travel into the inner city in search of heroin. Just like pizza delivery, Mexican traffickers will now bring your order to your home in the suburbs and small towns, making heroin no longer just a big city problem.
The Mexican cartels also use this same complex logistical system to distribute fentanyl, whether as a substitute for or supplement to heroin or to replace pharmaceutical opioids like oxycodone. Like heroin (and meth, for that matter), fentanyl is also being brought into the United States through other avenues. Some Asian and Canadian criminals are mailing it directly to buyers or sending some by couriers, but the volume of trade conducted through the darknet and mail order is far smaller than what is smuggled in by Mexican cartels.
The Growing Threat
The problem of darknet sales isn't trivial — an ounce of fentanyl mailed into the United States (at a significant health risk to postal workers) can provide over 14,000 2-milligram doses. And some recent seizures of Mexican fentanyl have come in much larger quantities. In August the Mexican military halted a shipment of 63.5 kilograms of fentanyl bound for the United States through Tijuana at a checkpoint in San Luis Rio Colorado. Also that month, the DEA seized 30,000 fentanyl-laced pills from a Sinaloa cartel network. Earlier, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Nogales, Arizona, had seized about 10 kilograms of fentanyl coming in from Mexico on April 23, and on June 30, agents seized another 15 kilos after a vehicle stop in San Diego.
In August and September, the DEA and New York Police Department also made two large fentanyl seizures that appear to be linked to Mexico. First, NYPD made another 63.5 kilogram seizure during a raid on a Kew Gardens apartment in Queens, as well as about 27 kilos of fentanyl mixed with other narcotics. In a second raid, the department seized 25 kilograms of fentanyl and heroin in the Bronx. Before this year, the U.S. record for a fentanyl seizure had been 40 kilograms, which was confiscated from a man with links to Mexico in June 2016 in Bartow County, Georgia.
Overall, seizures of fentanyl by Customs and Border Protection have risen from a little less than 1 kilogram in fiscal year 2013 to about 200 kilograms in fiscal year 2016. This pattern of seizures closely matches trends in the heroin and methamphetamine trade: Some fentanyl is coming in from other places, including Asia, but that amount is dwarfed by the quantities flooding in from Mexico.
Fighting the Problem
There is no easy way to halt the influx of fentanyl to the United States. Like the other segments of the narcotics business
, economics drives the fentanyl trade. As long as users are willing to pay for these powerful and potentially deadly drugs, creative traffickers will find ways to meet that demand. However, efforts are being made to impede the flow.
In March 2017, the Chinese government declared four variations of fentanyl — carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl and valeryl fentanyl — as controlled substances. This should help curtail the sale of them through the mail from China. However, it will not extinguish that source, because inventive chemists will continue to create new analogs in an effort to stay ahead of regulations. But even if the Chinese supply is stemmed a bit, that just plays into the hands of the Mexican cartels by helping them increase their market share. Previous efforts to curb the sales of meth precursor chemicals helped the cartels corner the U.S. meth market.
In terms of scope, even if fentanyl imported from all other sources were halted altogether, it would not end the threat coming from Mexico. Unless the stream of precursor chemicals to Mexico is interrupted, its cartels are capable of producing more than enough of the drug to meet U.S. demand. In this way, fentanyl mirrors meth. In both cases, halting the flow of their precursors is the key to halting their manufacture. Unfortunately, corruption and lawlessness in Mexico gives the cartels a great deal of latitude. As with methamphetamine, so long as the cartels can obtain the necessary chemicals, they will be able to synthesize the drugs that permit them to bribe officials, buy weapons and pay their gunmen. In the meantime, all U.S. authorities can do is try their best to limit the deadly tide, while deploying the medication naloxone more widely to try to save the lives of the rising number of fentanyl overdose patients.
Editor's Note: This analysis has been amended to remove an incorrect reference to the use of fentanyl to manufacture heroin.