View attachment 50585 MEXICO CITY — The drug that killed Prince has become a favorite of Mexican cartels because it is extremely potent, popular in the United States — and immensely profitable, American officials say.
Law enforcement and border authorities in the United States warn that Mexican cartels are using their own labs to produce the drug, fentanyl, as well as receiving shipments from China. Then the cartels distribute the substance through their vast smuggling networks to meet rising American demand for opiates and pharmaceuticals.
“It is really the next migration of the cartels in terms of making profit,” said Jack Riley, acting deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “This goes to the heart of the marketing genius of the cartels. They saw this coming.”
It is still unclear how Prince, who the authorities say died of an overdose of fentanyl in April, obtained the drug. Doctors can prescribe fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, for cancer patients and for palliative care, including end of life treatment. But the presence of illicit fentanyl is surging to levels not seen since 2006, when a similar streak of overdose deaths in the United States was connected to a single laboratory in Mexico.
Officials say the popularity of fentanyl among the cartels hews to a familiar narrative: changes in the illegal drug market and basic opportunism. As a crackdown on prescription drugs drove the cost of pills like oxycodone higher, the cartels began banking on users opting for heroin instead. It was cheaper, more readily available and relatively easy to procure.
Hundreds of Americans have died in fentanyl-related overdoses in recent years. Yet it offers tremendous profits for criminal networks in places like Massachusetts, where the fentanyl epidemic has arguably hit hardest. A kilogram of heroin purchased from Colombia for roughly $6,000 can be sold wholesale for $80,000, according to D.E.A. data. But a kilogram of pure fentanyl, purchased from China for less than $5,000, is so potent that it can be stretched into 16 to 24 kilograms when using cutting agents like talcum powder or caffeine. Each kilogram can then be sold wholesale for $80,000 — for a total profit in the neighborhood of $1.6 million.
“Cartels and drug traffickers are not stupid,” said Jorge Javier Romero Vadillo, a professor at CIDE, a Mexico City university. “They are rational economic actors, whose actions and decisions are directly related to demand.”
Mexican officials are wary of the American warnings that the cartels are responsible for widespread production or distribution of fentanyl, worried that their counterparts in the United States are instinctively blaming Mexico even though the public data on fentanyl traffic from Mexico is still limited. There have been notable seizures of the drug south of the border, however. Last fall, federal agents in Mexico discovered 27 kilograms of fentanyl — the dosage equivalent of almost one ton of heroin — on a remote landing strip in the state of Sinaloa. The raid also uncovered about 19,000 tablets of fentanyl, marked by traffickers to look like oxycodone. Two men detained in the raid were high-ranking members of the Sinaloa cartel, led by the drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as El Chapo.
“After the 2015 seizure, we ramped up efforts among all government agencies,” said Brig. Gen. Inocente Fermín Hernández, the head of Mexico’s national center for anti-crime policy, planning and information, a division of the attorney general’s office. “We realize we need to take appropriate measures to know and investigate if we are dealing with fentanyl every time we find a laboratory.”
For more than a year, the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States has warned of a fentanyl epidemic at home. Its potency, roughly 40 times that of heroin, has made fentanyl a popular choice for addicts and a profitable choice for dealers. Broken down and sold in less pure forms, the drug can be 20 times more profitable than heroin, or more, experts say. American border agents seized about 200 pounds of synthetic opioids like fentanyl last year, the majority of it along the southwest American border with Mexico, said R. Gil Kerlikowske, the commissioner of United States Customs and Border Protection.
While the numbers are still small, he said, the increase is alarming. In 2014, only eight pounds were seized. Since 2010, fentanyl recovered by American law enforcement across the country has risen twentyfold, from 640 samples tested to 13,002 last year, according to data from the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, a D.E.A. program. Deaths by overdose have moved in lock step with the rising availability of the drug: From late 2013 to late 2014, the most recent years available, more than 700 Americans died from fentanyl-related overdoses.
Fentanyl is used in many forms by the cartels, officials say. It is mixed with heroin to increase its strength, a combination known locally as diablito, or little devil. It can also be diluted and ingested directly. Taken directly, the dosage can be as small as a few grains of salt. Increasingly, however, fentanyl is being fashioned into fake oxycodone pills, a recognition that the recent rise in heroin addiction in America stems from the abuse of prescription painkillers.
In February, a 19-year-old was stopped crossing the border from Tijuana into the United States with about 1,200 pills marked as oxycodone. The young man, Sergio Linyuntang Mendoza Bohon, was stopped at the border by an agent who noticed a suspicious bulge in his waistline. His underwear was lined with drugs. He told agents that he was paid $300 to smuggle the pills, along with less than an ounce of white powder. Though he told investigators the pills were painkillers, the lab results tested positive for fentanyl. Some experts are more circumspect about the role of the cartels, saying there is still a lack of hard data to show their extensive involvement. The majority of drug seizures in Mexico still largely consist of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines. But others suspect the low numbers are because the Mexican authorities have not been testing for fentanyl when they seize drugs, a problem that also plagues local law enforcement in the United States.
Mr. Romero, the professor, said the full dimensions of the problem in Mexico are as yet unknown. “Our problem is that we don’t have any hard data to compare and contrast,” he said. The D.E.A. said the relative newness of fentanyl abuse means that law enforcement officials are seeing the early indications of the trend on the ground. States like California, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have had alarming rises in overdose deaths and the penetration of fentanyl in their local drug markets. Officials in those states also blame Mexico’s cartels.
Drug enforcement officials say the distribution of fentanyl mirrors the distribution patterns of other cartel drugs, like heroin. Mr. Riley of the D.E.A. says a Chicago street gang known as the Gangster Disciples, which traffics drugs for cartels in the city, is now pumping fentanyl into the market, in Chicago and all the way to New Hampshire.
General Hernández was more skeptical, saying that there had been just four episodes involving fentanyl that the Mexican government was aware of in the last decade, starting with production in a clandestine lab in 2006 and then, more recently, the raid in late 2015. Still, he acknowledged that the search for the drug was new, and that its prevalence is most likely underreported. Working with the Americans, he said, his office is now paying more attention to the issue, including instructing personnel conducting raids at laboratories to take more precautions than usual.
Fentanyl, which often comes in white powder form, can be introduced through contact with the skin. Given its power, it can cause an overdose just by touching it, especially among nonusers. Still, General Hernández said there were no records of any Mexicans dying from an overdose, neither users nor producers, raising the question of whether Mexico’s role in the fentanyl epidemic is overblown. But he also acknowledged that, as with other drugs, Mexico is more often a provider of illicit drugs than a user of them.
“Fentanyl is very difficult to detect at first glance,” he said. “Not everybody is able to recognize it.”
By Azam Ahmed - The NY Times/June 9,2016
Photos: 1- Getty, us soldiers, 2013 file photo; 2- Fusion, fentanyl
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