How the switch to fentanyl let cartels overwhelm police and flood the United States

  • A record-breaking collapse in October underscores how Mexico has become a hub for fentanyl.
  • Sinaloa and Jalisco’s new generation cartels have increased production of the drug, a potent synthetic opioid pain reliever.
  • An influx of fentanyl into the United States has helped push overdose deaths to new levels.

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Ciudad Juárez, Mexico – In late October, Mexican authorities seized a record amount of fentanyl from a single lab in northwest Sinaloa state, dealing a heavy blow to the Sinaloa cartel, officials said.

But security analysts and cartel agents say the collapse was only proof of Mexico’s “unstoppable” production of fentanyl.

Mexican soldiers found 118 kilograms, or about 260 pounds, of fentanyl worth about $ 50 million in a lab on the outskirts of Culiacán, a town known to be the stronghold of the Sinaloa cartel.

Fentanyl laboratory in Mexico

Mexican officials said the lab and warehouses seized in late October 2021 were being used to store precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl.

Mexican Secretariat of Defense


Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid pain reliever similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent, according to US officials. Mexican drug cartels have relied on fentanyl more than any other drug to keep their profits up.

During the raid, authorities arrested Armando Bátiz Camarena, alias “El Inge”, a known leader of the Sinaloa cartel responsible for the production and shipping of fentanyl to the United States, as well as four of his men.

Authorities also seized four bags of fentanyl precursor paste, over 4 pounds of inositol, a powder used as a drug cutting agent, five guns and more than $ 14,000 and 160 Venezuelan bolivars.

Although this is the biggest fentanyl roundup in Mexican history, it may have no effect on drug trafficking. It may also be just a sign of how Mexico is emerging as the biggest player in fentanyl production.

“If the Mexican authorities seized more than 100 kilograms, it means that the criminals are producing at least several tons,” Manelich Castilla, former Mexican federal police commissioner, told Insider.

Fentanyl laboratory in Mexico

Mexican officials said the lab and warehouses seized in late October 2021 were being used to store precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl.

Mexican Secretariat of Defense


Fentanyl is easier to produce than cocaine or heroin because it only requires a few chemicals and very basic equipment, Castilla explained.

“It is very easy to produce and 20 times more cost effective than any other drug. You only need a very small dose to be addictive,” he said.

Manelich said that the fact that small doses of fentanyl can produce such intense effects means that it is easier to smuggle.

“To transport fentanyl you don’t need large shipments. Now you can hide a very profitable load inside a container trailer and it would be nearly impossible to find,” he said. declared.

The Mexican Defense Secretary said earlier this year that fentanyl can be made in hours and is worth around $ 5,000 per kilogram in Mexico, a price that climbs to around $ 200,000 in the United States.

As a sign of the scale of production, U.S. authorities intercepted 17,584 pounds of methamphetamine and 389 pounds of fentanyl from a semi-trailer crossing the United States near San Diego on November 17. The two quantities are believed to be the largest seizures of either drug in the United States. in 2020 or 2021, U.S. officials said.

Powerful product

Drug laboratory in Mexico fentanyl

A chemist in protective gear containing pills seized from a clandestine fentanyl laboratory in Mexico City on December 12, 2018.

Attorney General’s Office / Document via Reuters


A member of the Sinaloa cartel in Culiacán who asked not to be identified told Insider that the destroyed lab was “very small” compared to production around Sinaloa.

“They broke one, and immediately 10 more started operating not far from it,” the officer said.

The agent said the fentanyl labs operate on a “mobile basis”.

“A few years ago the old bosses were setting up established fentanyl labs in warehouses or abandoned homes, but we learned that once they destroyed that lab the loss was too great,” said the ‘agent. “So now we’re setting up mobile labs in the middle of the woods and only cooking small batches in multiple labs at the same time to build a big expedition.”

During a trip to Sinaloa state in early 2021, Insider visited a fentanyl lab operated by the Sinaloa Cartel. One of the lab operators described how cooks are trained to mix fentanyl “as needed in the United States”.

“The cook learned from a Chinese brought here” by the cartel, the operator told Insider, adding that the cook “is the only one who knows the recipe.”

“But many started to die because we still didn’t have the right recipe, and some of them weren’t aware of the potency of the new product,” the operator added.

Sinaloa State Drug Laboratory in Mexico

Mexican authorities examine a clandestine laboratory suspected of producing synthetic drugs in the state of Sinaloa in August 2016.

Mexican Naval Secretariat



According to Manelich, most of the precursors needed to make fentanyl come from “the Asian region”, but not exclusively from China. Shipments arrive by sea “inside one of the many cargoes [containers] processed at the port “in the state of Colima on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

A leaked report from the DEA in 2019 called the Sinaloa cartel a “major producer and trafficker of fentanyl based in Mexico” in the United States. Jalisco’s powerful next-generation cartel has also increased its production of fentanyl.

The US Treasury Department recently sanctioned four men who it said were members of the CJNG “operating through the port of Manzanillo in Colima” to import fentanyl precursors and other drugs.

“It is impossible to track all these cargoes arriving in Mexico. What we need is a list of priority targets to know by name who are looking for, who is in charge of these operations,” said Manelich.

Seizures of fentanyl in Mexico have increased in the past year, according to Mexican officials. In 2020, authorities seized 1,300 kilograms of drugs, up from 222 kilograms in 2019, an increase of more than 400%.

In the United States, more than 30,000 people died from overdoses involving fentanyl in 2018, making it one of the most dangerous illicit drugs in history. Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have pushed the total number of overdose deaths in the United States to new levels.

Manelich said the only way out is a “coordinated agenda on addictions and security.”

“Today, Mexico does not have a policy or campaign to denounce the traffickers and the producers. The vision of the current administration is very limited compared to the way things are done in the United States,” Manelich said.


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