How fentanyl changed the game for Mexican drug cartels

One Sunday morning in May, after leaving a restaurant in western Mexico, Sergio Emmanuel Martnez, the new customs director of the country’s largest port, was kidnapped.

The next day, he was found dead alongside a highway, making him the fourth Port of Manzanillo customs official to be murdered in less than two years.

Manzanillo is a bustling center of global trade, but it’s also an entry point for chemicals from China that are used to make the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Like other Pacific Coast hubs, its importance to the drug business has increased dramatically with the fentanyl boom, sparking a fierce battle between cartels for control of the port. President Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador said Martnez’s death was related to measures taken to stop illegal imports.

People who come to work at customs are subject to pressure, Manzanillos mayor Griselda Martnez told the Financial Times. If they accept what one group proposes, they are killed… and if they don’t, so are they.

Griselda Martinez, mayor of Manzanillo

Griselda Martnez, Mayor of Manzanillos, says people working at customs are subject to pressure from drug cartels Alan Ortega/Reuters

A view of the port of Manzanillo

The port of Manzanillo has become an entry point for chemicals used to make fentanyl Alan Ortega/Reuters

Over the past decade, fentanyl has become the leading cause of death for young adults in the United States. The illegal drug trade in Mexico has also adapted to the transition from plant-based to synthetic drugs, creating a new branch of the illicit business, lean and highly profitable, with fewer workers and lower costs but with the same violence.

The change has caused friction in two of Washington’s most important relationships, with China and Mexico. It is also fast becoming a priority for US Republicans ahead of the country’s 2024 presidential election, with candidates launching ever more radical proposals for measures against both nations.

Stopping the supply is not easy.

In Manzanillo, cranes lift newly arrived containers filled with everything from clothes and powdered milk to car parts. On the dusty back roads, trucks carrying rolled steel wait to be deployed and men in high-vis jackets zip by on motorcycles carrying essential documents.

The port handles 9,500 20-foot equivalent units per day, comprising about 30% of the country’s maritime imports. Even without threats and bribery, Mexican Customs now under navy control would be hard-pressed to find the tiny amounts of input chemicals needed to make fentanyl among this vast cargo, experts said. Adding to the complexity, many of the ingredients can also be used for legal purposes, as is the highly potent fentanyl itself.

All of the fentanyl needed to supply the United States for a year weighs the equivalent of 5 tons and would easily fit in a truck, according to Rand Corporation researchers. This compares to around 125 tons for heroin and even more for cocaine.

It’s not a needle in a haystack, it’s the hole in the needle in the haystack, said Peter Reuter, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland.

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From the port, the chemicals are taken to Mexico’s northern states and mixed and pressed into pills, experts said. Unlike vast fields of poppies or marijuana, which depend on proper climate production, synthetic drug labs can be set up quickly in homes and go unnoticed even in urban areas.

Instead of employing tens of thousands of agricultural workers, Mexico’s entire fentanyl industry could work with cooks estimated in the hundreds, who mostly weren’t trained chemists, Reuter said. The growth of fentanyl appears to have hit heroin production particularly hard, with poppy growth in Mexico still well below its peaks, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

In a rudimentary laboratory in the hills of Sinaloa, two teenagers wearing latex gloves sat at a table filled with fentanyl powder, previously cooked under uncontrolled conditions, according to a television report for Mexico’s Televisa. They filled 21,000 capsules a week and were paid about $330, they said.

It’s not a lot of money, but everywhere pays so little. It’s boring too, said one of the masked men, who made the drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel.

Sinaloa Cartel members prepare meth capsules in a safe house in Culiacan, Mexico

Sinaloa Cartel members prepare meth capsules in Culiacan, Mexico Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

From there, the drugs are carried across the land border by mules, which are often American women, according to a recent US indictment. Some are flown over on private planes. Fentanyl was then distributed using US networks similar to those of other drugs, experts said.

Fentanyl now causes most of the more than 85,000 annual opioid overdose deaths in the United States and Canada. While many other drug tolls hit countries around the world, overdose deaths from fentanyl, originally developed in the 1950s as a pain reliever, are concentrated in North America.

Although the epidemic in the United States has been fueled by doctors overprescribing opioids, fentanyl is now mixed with many other illegal drugs. Mexican drug cartels are now also cutting other substances, such as the animal tranquilizer xylazine. Europol has expressed concern about its development in Europe, but has yet to get off the ground on a large scale.

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US lawmakers on both sides say Mexico needs to do more to stem the supply of fentanyl, with some even suggesting US military intervention against the cartels. In his June meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to unwind ties, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the need for cooperation on the issue. Both Mexico and China, which says it has taken unprecedented steps to control fentanyl and similar substances, argue that US drug demand is the real source of the problem.

Mexico in particular says it is already paying a heavy price. The switch by drug cartels to fentanyl to supply North America, which according to a recent US indictment began around 2014, has fueled domestic violence, where homicides reached record numbers from 2018 to 2020 and have now declined only slightly.

Fentanyl has been a source of conflict between the country’s two preeminent groups, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group.

It has definitely become a major driver of violence in Mexico, Ernst said. It’s a huge cash cow for those with access to it.

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Parts of Mexico’s poor and rural highlands, where poppies were grown to produce heroin, also suffered an economic crisis as users switched to fentanyl.

Tens of thousands of farmers in Guerrero, Sinaloa and other states now have incomes just a tenth of those they earned at the height of the US heroin boom in 2015-17, according to Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, a senior expert at the global nonprofit initiative against transnational organized crime.

There’s this idea that drugs are the most profitable product in the world, that it’s a recession-proof industry, but what [weve documented]… is an unprecedented economic crisis surrounding a drug, Le Cour said.

Poppy farmers and their families in a field in Mexico

Poppy farmers and their children in the southern Mexican highland state of Guerrero Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Despite evidence to the contrary, President Lpez Obrador says fentanyl is not made in Mexico. At the same time, his government has recently committed to a series of new measures to drastically reduce the entry of chemical precursors, including the strengthening of surveillance in its ports.

In Manzanillo, Sinaloa and the CJNG are fighting for control of the port city. In 2019, two armed assassins on motorcycles tried to kill Mayor Martnez, who is from the Lpez Obradors Morena party.

Bodyguards rescued her, and four years later she lives in a government building away from her family, protected by more than a dozen armed officials.

Having a security detail takes your life, she said, adding that her attackers had not yet been caught. This should never be normalized. It shouldn’t be like that.

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