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Fentanyl, the Multi-Million Dollar Drug that Gets Away with Murder—Here’s Why

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Fentanyl is conquering the streets of the United States, taking opioid addiction to a new level of lethality and intensity, while multiplying the profits of organized crime in exchange for a tidal wave of overdoses. It is a tragedy on a national scale, accelerating rather than slowing, tearing families and communities apart. And it looks like it’s going to get worse.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. It was originally developed with legitimate medical uses in mind. However, the aforementioned intensity of its effects, even in very small doses, has made it the protagonist of one of the fastest-growing markets in drug trafficking: a veritable gold mine for the cartels and a death mine for users.

The U.S. government points out that “illegal fentanyl is produced mainly in clandestine laboratories abroad and then introduced into the United States through Mexico”. According to the DEA, the “Mexican cartels, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel, have capitalized on the opioid epidemic and prescription drug abuse in the United States, flooding communities with illegal fentanyl and driving record levels of overdose deaths.”

Overdoses result from consuming “pills manufactured to resemble legitimate prescription opioids”, or using “other drugs, including heroin, methamphetamines and cocaine”, which traffickers mix with fentanyl to increase their profits.

Why? A single kilogram of fentanyl can yield up to 10 million “normal” doses, compared to the mere 10,000 pure doses that come out of a kilogram of cocaine, which mixed with other materials allow the cartels to offer powerful and relatively “cheap” narcotics. Thus, a trafficker can buy cocaine or heroin, reduce it with anything else, then add literally a pinch of fentanyl and sell the resulting product on the streets as if it were “pure”.

This phenomenon has two serious consequences:

  • Fentanyl has become a highly valued substance in the underworld. According to data from the Mexican Army, a kilogram of this chemical sells for $400,000, compared to “barely” $35,000 for a kilogram of heroin, $12,000 for a kilogram of cocaine and $80 for a kilogram of marijuana.
  • In addition to the obvious damage caused by the habitual consumption of hard drugs, the risk of overdose has increased. According to official data, 2 mg is enough for a lethal dose of fentanyl—depending on the weight and tolerance of the user—so a single kilogram of this substance can result in up to half a million potentially lethal doses.

And how big is the problem? Gigantic. Deaths are multiplying across America. Last year the CDC recorded more than 93,000 deaths from overdose, the highest level on record. That number doubled between January 2015 and January 2021 and shows no signs of declining.

DEA launched a public safety alert and “One Pill Can Kill” campaign in the face of a dramatic increase in fentanyl pills that “are killing Americans at an unprecedented rate.” In addition, they seized 2,316 kilograms of fentanyl in 2020 and have seized 9.5 million faked pills in 2021.

However, all those numbers remain anecdotal as the problem continues to worsen, and it is impossible to know how many more tons managed to cross the border and reach the streets, poisoning and killing thousands, without the law enforcement being able to prevent it.

China and Mexico on the route of death

As expected, the Chinese regime denies its share of responsibility in the crisis, despite multiple investigations, both journalistic and governmental, that show the prominent participation of Chinese companies and individuals in the trafficking of fentanyl to the United States.

On the contrary, the Mexican government does acknowledge, at least to the media, the growing seriousness of the problem, which is explained by the increasing pressure from Trump and Biden administrations, including Kamala Harris’ visit to President López Obrador on June 8, where they spoke about fentanyl and the “need for security at Mexico ports.”

In Mexico, according to the Secretary of National Defense: “Five routes have been identified according to a national evaluation on drugs (…), the ones that affect us are China-Mexico and India-Mexico, they reach our coasts in the Pacific and here we have the ports of entry, Manzanillo and Lazaro Cardenas…the movement of fentanyl goes north, here, in Sinaloa, we have an important area of generation of fentanyl tablets”.

Along the way, organized crime groups fight over routes and places with blood and fire, including massacres in the middle of the day and in the middle of urban areas. The same happens in Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Jalisco or Michoacán, before the resigned gaze or complicity of the authorities. The Mexican president promised to fight insecurity with “hugs, not bullets”, but the war between cartels did not decline, and violence has resulted in more than 100,000 murders and thousands of disappearances since Obrador came to power.

To put this into perspective, in just 20 years, while traditional drugs were replaced by synthetic compounds, homicide practically quadrupled in Mexico and since 2001 there have been nearly half a million murders nationwide. Yes, half a million. Approximately 1 out of every 250 Mexicans died at the hands of another Mexican in a span of 2 decades. That’s the size of the war.

And it is not only the homicides, it is the multiplication of kidnappings, which not only affect the multimillionaires, but even the poor and middle class; the forced disappearances, which add up to tens of thousands of victims who were never seen again. The extortion, which has become customary in a good part of the country, victimizing especially the merchants; the armed robbery in public transportation, which has become so normal that the thieves only need to tell the passengers: “you already know “. The rest is routine.

It is also getting used to the gunfire, to hearing the shots and simply bending down or walking away, hoping that this time the attack will be on someone else. It is the terror of running into a “military checkpoint” in the middle of the highway, and seeing that the supposed soldiers are wearing tennis shoes instead of military boots. It is running into a roadblock in the middle of the highway and staying on foot while the criminals take away the vehicle in which you were traveling. It is, in short, the systematization of chaos.

Is any path to a solution?

The gigantic profits from fentanyl trafficking play a very important role in financing the criminal machines, which feed a trail of death on both sides of the border:  in Mexico by bullets and in America by overdoses, which will continue to worsen, because although there are seizures and arrests, it is clear that they are not enough.

Perhaps the time will even come when the apparently absurd proposals of the Trump administration in the sense of declaring the cartels as terrorist organizations and mobilizing 250,000 soldiers of the American Army on the border with Mexico will become viable, for better or for worse, because if the course is maintained, that chaos and violence that today drowns Mexico, will continue to seep into America until the leak turns into waves.

In any case, it is clear that normal strategies do not work here. Fentanyl is not just another drug whose effects can be administered and contained. It is being sold disguised as medicine or as other narcotics, deceiving consumers and killing them by the thousands. The situation is serious and getting worse. It has already overtaken the Mexican government and is having lethal and growing effects in the United States.

It is as clear and serious as that.

Gerardo Garibay Camarena, is a doctor of law, writer and political analyst with experience in the public and private sectors. His new book is "How to Play Chess Without Craps: A Guide to Reading Politics and Understanding Politicians" // Gerardo Garibay Camarena es doctor en derecho, escritor y analista político con experiencia en el sector público y privado. Su nuevo libro es “Cómo jugar al ajedrez Sin dados: Una guía para leer la política y entender a los políticos”

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