Fentanyl trafficking tests America’s foreign policy (2023)


Beijing, Mexico City and San Diego

AT THE FAR south-west corner of America lies the busiest border crossing in the western hemisphere. People and goods constantly cruise through the port of San Ysidro, which connects Tijuana in Mexico with San Diego in California. But more nefarious things cross too. Nearly half of the fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, seized by Customs and Border Patrol agents since 2020 has been captured near San Diego. “I’m ground zero,” says Todd Gloria, the mayor of the city.

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(Video) San Diego: The epicenter of fentanyl trafficking
Fentanyl trafficking tests America’s foreign policy (1)

America’s 20-year opioid epidemic has been shaped by changes in supply. First pharmaceutical companies blanketed the country in legal painkillers. Doctors expanded the use of opioids against chronic pain, such as backache, in the false belief that the risks of addiction were extremely low. By the time OxyContin was reformulated in 2010 to make it harder to abuse, Mexican traffickers were peddling cheap heroin sent to addicts’ doorsteps. Around 2014, more Americans started fatally overdosing on fentanyl, 50 times more potent than heroin, which traffickers had mixed in with heroin or cocaine. Overdose deaths rocketed (see chart).

Fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat America has faced. It killed nearly 108,000 people in the 12 months to August 2022, more than the number of Americans who died fighting wars in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Ever more seems to be entering the country. Nearly 14,000 pounds of fentanyl was seized between October and March, almost as much as the total for fiscal-year 2022. Most of the people convicted of fentanyl trafficking between 2018 and 2021 were American citizens, not Mexicans or asylum-seekers.

The epidemic is mutating again. Fentanyl is being mixed with xylazine, or tranq, an animal tranquilliser that can amplify its effects. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of pills seized in 2022 contained xylazine. Because tranq is not an opioid, an overdose cannot be reversed with naloxone, a live-saving antidote. Officials in California are worried about addicts shifting from ingesting pills to smoking fentanyl powder. Modelling from the Stanford-Lancet Commission on the North American Opioid Epidemic suggests that 1.2m more people could die by 2029.

Last month American prosecutors indicted 28 people involved in the fentanyl trade, including the “Chapitos”, the sons of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel who is serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison. The charges provide a rare glimpse into the cartel, which prosecutors suggest is the biggest trafficker of fentanyl into America. The Chapitos deny the indictments’ allegations.

The documents support some things already widely suspected: that Mexican cartels order the precursor chemicals for fentanyl from China. The chemicals are flown or shipped to Mexico, sometimes via countries such as Germany or Guatemala, then cooked into fentanyl in clandestine laboratories in the mountains of Sinaloa. The finished product is transported by land, sea, air and even tunnels to safe houses in Los Angeles, Phoenix and El Paso, to be distributed across America.

(Video) Ex-Police Union Executive Charged in Fentanyl Trafficking Ring

But some details shed new light on just how brutal and lucrative the fentanyl trade can be. The DEA reckons the cartel can make a fentanyl pill for ten cents. The charges suggest that the Chapitos can then sell pills wholesale for 50 cents in America, which dealers will hawk for several dollars on the street. The documents allege that just one cartel operative in Los Angeles managed to launder $24m in roughly two years.

Fentanyl is testing America’s relations with Mexico and China. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president, often known as AMLO, has denied that fentanyl is made in his country, and suggested that the epidemic reflected a “lack of love” within American families.

Lower-level Mexican and American officials continue to collaborate, though not as closely as they did during the presidency of Felipe Calderón, who launched Mexico’s war on organised crime in 2006. This month Mexico’s Congress approved a strict new law mandating ten- to 15-year prison sentences for those convicted of producing fentanyl or providing precursor chemicals.

AMLO’s defensiveness is in response to calls by some Republican politicians to designate Mexican cartels as terrorist organisations, and to send American forces to fight them—with or without Mexico’s permission. Some Mexicans worry that the issue may become a litmus test for Republican presidential hopefuls. “It’s going to become a political piñata,” warns Arturo Sarukhan, who was Mexico’s ambassador to America from 2007 to 2013. “They’re going to try and out-Trump Trump to see who is the hardliner on what to do with Mexico.”

War, what is it good for?

Increased attention to the epidemic is welcome. Drug overdoses have claimed 1m American lives since 1999, and the policy response has been sluggish and disorganised. But Republicans may have a second, more cynical, reason for their bellicose rhetoric. It is good politics.

In 1972, a year after declaring the war on drugs and weeks before an election, Richard Nixon said heroin-dealers “must be hunted to the end of the Earth”. In 2016 Donald Trump touted his border wall as a way to stop not just migrants but drugs, too. President Joe Biden seems alert to the political threat. As well as the indictments of the Chapitos, and new sanctions on their suppliers, his administration is splashing out on more border-patrol agents and high-tech scanners at border crossings.

The epidemic has proved deadly south of the border, too: the cartels’ turf wars have led to horrific violence. Mexican officials warn America that its inability to crack down on gun-smuggling means it is arming the cartels. America’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that 70% of guns recovered in Mexico between 2014 and 2018 came from the United States. Mexico has sued gunmakers in America for $10bn in damages. Some small progress is being made. The gun-control law Congress passed in 2022 made it a federal crime to purchase a gun for criminals, and increased arms-trafficking sentences.

The DEA is focused on taking out the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), the other big player in the fentanyl trade. “Tackling these two cartels is job one for the American people today,” says Anne Milgram, the DEA’s boss.

What about China? The Trump administration successfully lobbied Xi Jinping in 2019 to ban the illicit production and sale of fentanyl. Sales of the drug from China to America all but stopped, but shipments were routed through Mexico instead. As tensions rose between China and America, Chinese officials saw no reason to co-operate on drugs. China ended any remaining counter-narcotics collaboration after Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Taiwan in 2022.

(Video) News Wrap: 28 Sinaloa cartel members charged in U.S. fentanyl trafficking case

A report from America’s Treasury Department suggests criminal groups from China launder cash for the cartels by selling the drug dollars to rich Chinese who want to evade China’s capital controls. Joni Ernst, a Republican senator from Iowa, recently said she thinks China is “intentionally poisoning” Americans. The Biden administration seems to suspect gross negligence rather than asymmetric warfare.

American officials are struggling with how to disrupt trafficking while also recognising the failures of the war on drugs, not least the harm done to African-Americans, who were disproportionately imprisoned for low-level and non-violent drug crimes. The DEA wants to rebrand the effort. “We talk about this as not a war on drugs but a fight to save lives,” says Ms Milgram.

The trouble is that trying to disrupt drug-trafficking is akin to battling a Hydra. In Greek mythology, when Hercules severed one of the serpent’s heads, two more grew in its place. If China stops exporting precursor chemicals, more will come from India. If the DEA destroys the Sinaloa cartel, the CJNG may become public enemy number one. If San Diego’s border crossings become impassable, Tucson in Arizona may take over as the channel—indeed, that may be happening already. “We are not making progress,” says David Trone, a Democratic congressman from Maryland who co-chaired a bipartisan commission on synthetic-opioid trafficking.

But there are things that lawmakers can do, even without help from Mexico or China, to reduce deaths. States could legalise fentanyl-test strips, which are considered drug paraphernalia, so people can know if they are consuming the deadly drug. Congress could expand access to buprenorphine and methadone, drugs that help treat opioid addiction. The Biden administration recently made naloxone available over the counter.

“Keep people alive,” says Mr Trone, who lost his nephew in 2016 to a fentanyl overdose. “That’s the answer.” With more than 100,000 dead each year, even marginal gains may save thousands of lives.

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "Supply-side epidemic"

United States May 13th 2023

  • Fentanyl trafficking tests America’s foreign policy
  • Why chaos looms at the US-Mexico border
  • Horse-racing in America needs to improve its odds
  • What America’s tiny banks do that big ones don’t
  • Chicago’s new mayor has one of the trickiest jobs in politics
  • Donald Trump has become more dangerous
(Video) Fentanyl is making its way into various drugs sold in the U.S. Here's how it gets there
Fentanyl trafficking tests America’s foreign policy (2)

From the May 13th 2023 edition

Discover stories from this section and more in the list of contents

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(Video) How Fentanyl Gets To The U.S. From China (HBO)


What is the US fentanyl legislation? ›

The FEND Off Fentanyl Act is a sanctions and anti-money laundering bill to help combat the country's fentanyl crisis by targeting opioid traffickers devastating America's communities.

Does fentanyl get into the United States? ›

Fentanyl can come into the United States as a powder, as a pill, cut into other drugs like marijuana and cocaine, or sometimes in droppers and then it is moved across the country and sold.

What is the minimum mandatory for trafficking fentanyl in Florida? ›

Florida Statute 893.135(1)(c)(1) prohibits knowingly possessing, selling, purchasing, manufacturing, delivering, or transporting 4 grams or more of fentanyl or any derivative compound (“Trafficking in Fentanyl”).

What is the US foreign policy on drugs? ›

Current International Drug Control Policy. The primary stated goal of U.S. international drug policy is to reduce the supply of illicit narcotics flowing into the United States. A second and supporting goal is to reduce the amount of illicit drugs cultivated, processed, and consumed worldwide.

What country does most of the illegal fentanyl in the US come from? ›

Instead of finished fentanyl being shipped directly to the United States, most smuggling now takes place via Mexico. Mexican criminal groups source fentanyl, fentanyl precursors, and increasingly pre-precursors from China, and then traffic finished fentanyl from Mexico to the United States.

What is the new bill on fentanyl? ›

A bill introduced this year, SB 101, would increase the penalty for supplying fentanyl or other drugs that lead to a person's death, making it a Class B felony punishable by up to 60 years in prison.

How does fentanyl get from China to USA? ›

Chinese chemical and shipping companies began instead selling precursor chemicals for manufacturing fentanyl to Mexican drug cartels, which subsequently smuggled the illicit material into the United States.

Was fentanyl seized at the border? ›

CBP officers seize fentanyl and methamphetamine at the Paso Del Norte border crossing. EL PASO, Texas – U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers working at the Paso Del Norte Border Crossing, intercepted a combined 17 pounds of fentanyl and methamphetamine in a single smuggling attempt.

What drug cartels are involved in fentanyl? ›

The Sinaloa Cartel is one of the most powerful drug cartels in the world and is largely responsible for the manufacturing and importing of fentanyl for distribution in the United States. Fentanyl is a dangerous synthetic opioid that is more than 50 times more potent than heroin.

What is the maximum sentence for drug trafficking in USA? ›

Not less than 20 yrs. or more than life. If death or serious bodily injury, life imprisonment. Fine not more than $20 moillion if an individual, $75 million if other than an individual.

How much time can you get for selling fentanyl in California? ›

Penalties for Intending to Sell Fentanyl in California

According to the narcotics laws of California, any person who possesses fentanyl with the intent to sell it or purchases fentanyl with the intent to sell it shall be punished by imprisonment for two to four years if found guilty.

How many grams of fentanyl is trafficking in Alabama? ›

The Alabama legislation by Republican Matt Simpson, a former prosecutor, sets mandatory prison sentences and fines for trafficking one gram of fentanyl or more.

What is the most important federal drug law in the United States? ›

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) places all substances which were in some manner regulated under existing federal law into one of five schedules. This placement is based upon the substance's medical use, potential for abuse, and safety or dependence liability.

What is the three part approach to the drug policy of the United States? ›

Most experts agree that it is a three-pronged approach of prevention/education, law enforcement, and rehabilitation.

What are the three international drug control treaties? ›

Drug-related treaties
  • Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol. Commentary on the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961: ...
  • Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971. ...
  • United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988.

What country sells the most fentanyl? ›

Fentanyl is highly addictive and creates large profit margins for those involved in the manufacturing and dealing of the synthetic opioid. The world's largest source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues is China.

Who invented fentanyl? ›

Fentanyl emerged on the scene for this purpose back in 1953. Discovered by the Belgian doctor and chemist Paul Janssen, fentanyl was an attempt to improve upon morphine. Janssen believed he could design a molecule that was 100 times more potent but with a shorter duration than morphine.

How many people have died from fentanyl? ›

Based on preliminary 2021 data, there were 6,843 opioid-related overdose deaths in California; 5,722 of these deaths were related to fentanyl. In 2021, there were 224 fentanyl-related overdose deaths among teens, ages 15–19 years old, in California. Knowledge can save lives and stop drug overdose.

How much is a kilo of fentanyl in the United States? ›

A kilogram of fentanyl, which sold for about $50,000 in 2020 could potentially produce 250,000 lethal doses. Michigan drug overdose deaths climbed to record levels in 2020 during the pandemic.

What is the federal government doing about fentanyl? ›

The Administration continues to call on Congress to permanently schedule all illicitly produced fentanyl-related substances into Schedule I and to take other complementary actions to enhance public health and public safety, consistent with the comprehensive proposal developed jointly in 2021 by the Department of ...

What helps stop fentanyl? ›

What is naloxone? Naloxone is a life-saving medication that can reverse an overdose from opioids—including heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid medications—when given in time.

Is fentanyl in China or Mexico? ›

According to the DEA and the justice department, since at least 2019 the bulk of the illegal fentanyl entering the US has been produced in Mexico using Chinese precursor chemicals.

What is the summary of fentanyl? ›

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is prescribed in the form of transdermal patches or lozenges and can be diverted for misuse and abuse in the United States.

How did Mexico get fentanyl? ›

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, however, insists that the main source of the synthetic drug is Asia. Mexican criminals, he says, merely stamp fentanyl powder into pills as it transits the country.

Were the California fentanyl bust suspects released? ›

Defendants Jose Zendejas, 25, and Benito Madrigal, 19 – released on their own recognizance less than 24 hours after their arrest with the large stash of illicit drugs – were scheduled to appear for their arraignments at the Tulare County Courthouse in central California Thursday morning, but failed both men failed to ...

Did police find fentanyl pill press in Mexican town near US border? ›

Mexican prosecutors said Thursday they found an illicit facility with a pill press used to manufacture fentanyl pills in the border town of San Luis Rio Colorado, across from Yuma, Arizona.

What rappers overdosed on fentanyl? ›

Coolio performs at Groovin The Moo in 2019 in Australia. The rapper Coolio died of an accidental fentanyl overdose, documents from the Los Angeles County coroner's office show.

What drug class is fentanyl DEA? ›

Fentanyl is a Schedule II controlled substance that is similar to morphine but about 100 times more potent.

Where is the faces of fentanyl at DEA headquarters? ›

The DEA Faces of Fentanyl Wall exhibit is located at DEA Headquarters, at 700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, VA 22202. Visitors can view the wall Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Please note: DEA Headquarters is a federal building, and visitors must comply with security rules and procedures.

How much drugs does it take to be considered trafficking? ›

Drug Trafficking Amount

For example, someone found in possession of 1 or more grams of LSD (lysergic acid diethylmide), 5 or more grams of crack cocaine, 500 or more grams of powdered cocaine, or 100 or more grams of heroin will face drug trafficking charges.

How much money is in drug trafficking? ›

Drug trafficking - the global illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws is estimated to be a $32 billion industry.

Are 99% of federal drug offenders sentenced for trafficking? ›

Almost all (99.5%) of these offenders were serving time for drug trafficking. More than half (54%) of them had an offense related to powder or crack cocaine. Methamphetamine offenders (24%) accounted for the next largest share of federal prisoners, followed by marijuana (12%) and heroin (6%) offenders.

What are the sentencing guidelines for fentanyl? ›

The average guideline minimum decreased from 95 months in fiscal year 2017 to 84 months in fiscal year 2021. The average sentence imposed decreased from 80 months in fiscal year 2017 to 58 months in fiscal year 2021.

How long is a fentanyl sentence? ›

The average sentence for fentanyl trafficking offenders was 69 months. 96.9% were sentenced to prison. 55.9% were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty; 54.7% of those offenders were relieved of that penalty.

How many years can you get for a gram of fentanyl? ›

What's the Punishment for Possessing Fentanyl in Texas?
Amount of FentanylSentencePrison term
<1 gramState Jail Felony180 days – 2 years
1 gram–4 gramsSecond Degree Felony2-20 years
4 grams–200 gramsFirst Degree Felony5-99 years
200 grams–400 gramsLife Felony10-99 years
1 more row

How much fentanyl is trafficking in Florida? ›

Florida Statute 893.135(1)(c)(1) prohibits knowingly possessing, selling, purchasing, manufacturing, delivering, or transporting 4 grams or more of fentanyl or any derivative compound (“Trafficking in Fentanyl”).

What is the minimum sentence for trafficking fentanyl in Florida? ›

Under Florida mandatory minimum laws, if the court convicts you of trafficking between four and 14 grams of fentanyl, you could face: Up to 30 years, but a minimum of at least three years, in prison. A $50,000 fine.

How much fentanyl is considered trafficking in South Carolina? ›

(c) twenty-eight grams or more, a mandatory term of imprisonment of not less than twenty-five years nor more than forty years, no part of which may be suspended nor probation granted, and a fine of two hundred thousand dollars. SECTION 3. Section 44-53-370(d) of the S.C.

What are the 4 types of controlled substances? ›

The control applies to the way the substance is made, used, handled, stored, and distributed. Controlled substances include opioids, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, and anabolic steroids.

What do drug traffickers do? ›

Drug trafficking, also known as drug distribution, is the crime of selling, transporting, or illegally importing unlawful controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, or other illegal drugs.

Who has the toughest drug laws in the world? ›

Southeast Asia has some of the toughest drug laws in the world. One country bucking that trend is Thailand, which recently decriminalized cannabis and freed thousands of people convicted of cannabis-related offenses from jail.

What is the drug trafficking policy in the US? ›

Under federal law, Title 21, Section 841 makes it unlawful for any person to knowingly or intentionally “manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance.” States may also criminalize drug trafficking.

What is a third tier drug? ›

Level or Tier 3: High-cost, mostly brand-name drugs that may have generic or brand-name alternatives in Levels 1 or 2. Level or Tier 4: Highest-cost, mostly brand-name drugs.

Which of the following federal laws was designed to prevent drug abuse? ›

Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

What are the United Nations bodies for drug control? ›

The agency's focus is the trafficking in and abuse of illicit drugs, crime prevention and criminal justice, international terrorism, and political corruption.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
HeadquartersVienna, Austria
HeadGhada Waly (since 2020)
Parent organizationUnited Nations Secretariat
4 more rows

What was the single convention on narcotic drugs 1961 adopted by the United Nations Conference at New York in March 1961? ›

The United Nations Conference for the Adoption of a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs met at United Nations Headquarters from 24 January to 25 March 1961, and adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The aim of the Convention was to combat drug consumption through coordinated international intervention.

What is the International Organization Against drugs? ›

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is a global leader in the fight against illicit drugs and international crime, in addition to being responsible for implementing the United Nations lead programme on terrorism.

What is the Lamborn fentanyl bill? ›

Specifically, the bill: Amends the Controlled Substances Act and Controlled Substances Import and Export Act to reduce the 10-year mandatory minimum threshold for fentanyl offenses from 400 grams to 20 grams and fentanyl analogue offenses from 10 grams to 5 grams.

What is the fentanyl legislation in Texas? ›

Earlier this month, the Texas representatives overwhelmingly passed House Bill 362, which would allow people to safely test their drugs for fentanyl “without the risk of prosecution.” Governor Greg Abbott has indicated he would sign this into law if it were passed.

Is there legislation against fentanyl? ›

Newhouse introduced the Save Americans from the Fentanyl Emergency Act of 2022 , or SAFE Act of 2022 . The legislation permanently schedules all current and future fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs, to ensure law enforcement can continue to prosecute the sale and use of these substances.

Why is fentanyl considered a crisis in the US? ›

Introduction. Fentanyl and other opioids are fueling the worst drug crisis in the history of the United States. More than 1,500 people per week die from taking some type of opioid, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, making opioids by far the leading cause of fatal overdoses in the country.

Is fentanyl a real threat to law enforcement? ›

About Fentanyl

Fentanyl poses a significant threat to law enforcement personnel and other first responders who may come in contact through routine law enforcement, emergency or life-saving activities. Fentanyl may be ingested orally, inhaled through the nose or mouth, or absorbed through the skin or eyes.

Who introduced fentanyl to the United States? ›

Mexican cartels use precursor compounds imported from China to manufacture large quantities of fentanyl products, which are then smuggled into the United States.

What is the DEA statement about fentanyl? ›

DEA laboratory testing in 2022 revealed that six out of ten pills contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. This is an increase from 2021 when DEA lab testing revealed four out of ten pills tested contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.

What is the new fentanyl law in Florida? ›

The bill, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday, establishes a three-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for people who make, sell or deliver fentanyl products that look like candy or vitamins – something like a colorful pill with a design pressed on it.

What is the punishment for selling fentanyl in California? ›

According to legislative documents, California's current laws relating to fentanyl distribution punish convicted dealers with prison time between two to nine years, depending on the exact crime.


1. Fentanyl Within (Full Episode) | To Catch a Smuggler
(National Geographic)
2. WATCH LIVE: DEA, White House officials testify on countering fentanyl trafficking in Senate hearing
(PBS NewsHour)
3. How China Is Fuelling America's Drug Epidemic | News on Drugs
(VICE News)
4. How the Mexican cartels are making profits now
(The Economist)
5. Bodycam Shows Florida Officer's Overdose During Drug Search
(NBC News)
6. Fentanyl (Full Episode) | Trafficked with Mariana Van Zeller
(National Geographic)


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