Chinese Chemicals in Mexican Cartel Hands Feed Deadly U.S. Fentanyl Crisis

Chemicals manufactured in China and bought by Mexico's narco cartels in transactions facilitated by a global network of Chinese criminal groups are fueling the fentanyl crisis, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, the world's biggest market for illegal drugs.

The U.S. death toll tied to fentanyl in 2020 is estimated at a record 90,000.

The problem may only be getting worse.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid developed decades ago as an extremely powerful pain reliever. It's about 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.

It takes only about 2 milligrams of fentanyl to kill an average human being.

Nonetheless, fentanyl is being used outside of the medical field to enhance the recreational high of other narcotics, painkillers and prescription drugs. Despite its lethal properties, it is the basis of an extremely lucrative industry with a sophisticated network that links back to a nation that leads the world in all kinds of manufacturing and exports: The People's Republic of China.

China hosts a massive array of high-tech laboratories that help supply the globe with life-saving pharmaceuticals. Other facilities, however, end up spreading death thousands of miles away.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is on the forefront of this fight, and it sees powerful, influential and international Chinese criminal groups as one of its most formidable opponents.

"Chinese organized crime is very instrumental to the entire drug trade," DEA New York City Division Special Agent-in-Charge Raymond Donovan told Newsweek, "on the front end, and the back end, and in the middle."

And while the agency sees a major problem in China, it also sees the solution.

"I think if the Chinese government said, 'No, we are going to regulate the export of precursor chemicals to Central America,' Donovan told Newsweek, "you would see an immediate change in America."

Actions taken by Beijing have had severe effects against drug trafficking in the past, and now U.S. officials hope efforts to jointly tackle the issue with Chinese counterparts will overcome strained geopolitical ties between the leading powers.

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DEA New York Division Special Agent in Charge Raymond Donovan poses for a picture in his office at the New York Division office on April 27. On the wall to the left can be seen a plaque displaying the shirt that infamous Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán wore during his capture in 2016. Christopher Leaman/Newsweek

The fentanyl crisis first emerged in the early 2010s and quickly took the U.S. by storm, prompting the DEA to issue a nationwide alert as fatalities began to swell. One previously deadly outbreak years earlier had been linked to a single lab in Toluca, Mexico, and a raid put an end to production immediately.

This time, not only fentanyl but analogs consisting of similar compounds were pouring into the country.

The DEA was able to link the influx to laboratories in China, where, as was the case initially in the U.S., fentanyl and its analogs were largely unregulated. U.S. officials petitioned their Chinese counterparts to take action, and they did with a series of crackdowns, the most dramatic of which occurred in 2019.

It wasn't just law enforcement that observed the difference, diplomats too noticed the drastic decline.

"The People's Republic of China (PRC)'s regulatory action in 2019 to class schedule fentanyl and its analogs disrupted their flow into the United States and globally," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek. "This action, combined with heightened U.S. regulatory and enforcement efforts, dramatically decreased the amount of fentanyl and fentanyl analogs coming directly from the PRC into the United States to almost zero since October 2019."

But once again, the threat mutated. Other raw materials that can be used to create fentanyl began pouring in without triggering restrictions in either the U.S. or China. The shipments end up in Mexico, where clandestine cartel labs run by powerful organizations such as the Sinaloa and the Jalisco New Generation, or CJNG, manufacture the drug.

"A significant amount of non-fentanyl opioids and precursor chemicals used to produce fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and other synthetic drugs originate in the PRC and are used to manufacture fentanyl and other illicit synthetic drugs in Mexico," the spokesperson explained.

And while Mexican groups made the drugs, it was transnational Chinese groups that moved the money allowing the operation to flow smoothly.

"Chinese money laundering organizations that exploit PRC institutions dominate money laundering globally, providing this service to cartels that manufacture fentanyl in Mexico using PRC-origin chemicals," the State Department spokesperson said.

Chinese underground societies, or triads, have operated across the globe for ages, but only through investigations into the international flow of fentanyl did the DEA uncover their centrality to the worldwide trafficking of illicit narcotics.

"I think fentanyl really put a huge spotlight on the Chinese involvement in the drug trade at large," Donovan told Newsweek. "Before that, we were so focused on Mexican cartels, the violence, everything that they've done. And what we didn't realize was the real scope or the depth to which Chinese organized crime is involved with the entire drug trade."

And that drug trade is not limited to fentanyl.

The DEA linked these triad organizations to other drug markets including methamphetamines in Australia and cocaine in Europe. He said that in Mexico, these groups have managed to operate quietly and blend in with the criminal culture south of the U.S. border.

"They're very skilled, they're very compartmentalized, they're very covert," Donovan said, "and they're not going to draw attention like the cartels do with violence and kidnappings and all the other horrendous things they do."

And Chinese organized crime has even managed to embed itself in Mexican society.

"They're operating really with impunity, and no longer are they foreign entities in Mexico," Donovan said. "Their kids are born in Mexico, the generation now, they're Chinese organized crime in Mexico that are part of the Mexican culture."

He said this has made it especially difficult for the DEA, as both Chinese and Mexican criminal forces have managed to stay one step ahead, as have the overseas exporters of precursor chemicals such as NPP and 4-ANPP.

As time goes on, Mexican cartels are requiring less and less sophisticated substances to create fentanyl themselves.

"Even after the Chinese government started regulating fentanyl and all the variations of fentanyl, what do the Mexican cartels do?" Donovan asked. "They start sending for 4-ANPP or NPP. So now the Mexican cartels are very skilled at taking that, adding the chemical to it and making their own fentanyl."

This has led the DEA to channel its efforts toward pushing Mexican counterparts to be proactive in this new front of a long-running narcotics war that has ravaged the country.

Mexico says it's stepping up.

"For the Mexico-US bilateral relationship, combatting the trafficking of fentanyl is a priority," a Mexican government statement shared with Newsweek said. "Within the High-Level Group on Security and the North American Drug Dialogue, both countries have agreed to share information; strengthen non-intrusive equipment in critical areas such as ports of entry by air, sea, and land, canine equipment. Furthermore, there is constant training to detect fentanyl, its precursors, and analogs."

This multinational campaign includes not only the drug-busting side of the operation, but also curbing the flow of criminal cash across borders.

"The Government of Mexico has directed its efforts to detect fentanyl in ports of entry by tracking and sharing intelligence with other countries, locating and dismantling clandestine laboratories," the statement said. "Financial intelligence enhances the detection of the flow of illegal money to diminish the capacities of transnational criminal organizations."

Such capabilities received a boost last October with the signing of an agreement between the Mexican Finance Ministry's Financial Intelligence Unit and the Confederation of Associations of Customs Agents of the Mexican Republic, or CAAAREM, "in order to combat corruption, money laundering and terrorism financing in customs." Among the objectives of the deal "is to combat the trafficking of fentanyl and its synthetic drug precursors."

That same month, an ambitious law enforcement campaign called "Operation Blue" seized and dismantled a Mexico City laboratory where methamphetamine and fentanyl were being produced. The lab was capable of processing up to 5,000 kilograms, or five and a half tons, of raw material at once, according to the government.

Throughout 2020, Mexican authorities seized 1,301 kilograms of fentanyl, representing a 644% increase compared to 2019. They have already seized 625 kilograms in the first four months of this year.

The spokesperson for the State Department said it "supports Mexico's efforts to reduce the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs like fentanyl and counter the influence of transnational criminal organizations that profit from drug trafficking" through its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

"The United States is encouraged by Mexico's recent steps to regulate several precursor chemicals used to produce fentanyl, including 4-AP, and to create a watch list to monitor potential precursors of concern," the spokesperson said.

Now, the spokesperson added, "the United States continues to press the PRC to schedule 4-AP."

"While PRC efforts to combat these problems have evolved, the United States has stressed to the PRC the need to take a more proactive role in disrupting the flow of PRC-origin precursors used to manufacture illicit fentanyl and methamphetamine trafficked globally, and address Chinese money laundering organizations that support the global illicit drug trade," the spokesperson said.

China does not ignore these illicit activities happening at home. The country enforces strict counternarcotics laws as part of what President Xi Jinping and his National Narcotics Control Commission have termed "the People's War Against Drugs in the New Era."

A report published earlier this week by China's National Bureau of Statistics said authorities had successfully tackled solve drug-related crime cases, arrested 92,000 suspects and seized 55.5 tons of drugs. This included further efforts to "strictly block the flow of drug-making products out of the country" through tighter export license verifications and "deepen the crackdown on new criminal drugs such as fentanyl substances."

China also leads the world in executions for drug trafficking-related offenses.

As one DEA official put it, "Agree with their approach or not, people do not want to break the law in China, so when they set it as law, people listen."

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A chart published by the DEA details the most routes through which fentanyl entered the United States in 2019, the same year the Chinese government instituted a major crackdown that would drastically reduce the flow of drug directly into the U.S., but also spurred resourceful criminal groups to seek precursors to make the substance themselves, especially in Mexico. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

This is where the official saw the importance of the U.S.-China working relationship coming into play. And, despite the geopolitical tensions eroding ties between the countries in nearly every sphere short of climate change, both have a mutual interest in fighting the global war on drugs.

"Maybe our Chinese relationship isn't the best, and I'm not going to sit here and say that it is," the DEA official told Newsweek, "but our law enforcement relationship with our Chinese law enforcement counterparts is unmatched. We have a wonderful relationship with them. And, you know, of course, it's challenging, it's international, but it's a bright spot in the Chinese relationship."

When DEA officials go to their Chinese counterparts, they take action, and Beijing has issued widespread bans on a number of fentanyl substances, analogs and precursors.

With the drug trade growing more sophisticated, however, the raw materials being purchased are moving further upstream in the fentanyl production process, getting to the point where they include otherwise innocuous substances that not even the U.S. would be capable of restricting.

At some point, the DEA official said, China will reject a U.S. request to implement controls on a certain substance, and it will have a good argument for doing so.

"We, the United States have to look within ourselves as well and say, 'Well, why can't we control it here?' Well, we can't control it here because it's a legitimate industry," the official said. "The small amount of people who are diverting it for nefarious reasons, should not be the reason why we hold the rest of the globe accountable for."

He warned that there will come a time where it will no longer be in China's interests to curb its own sale of certain chemicals.

"How do you think negotiations in the future are going to go when we come to China with our hat in our hands and say, 'Hey, China, can you also control these seven other precursor chemicals?'" he asked. "I don't know how quickly they will laugh us out of the room, but I'm quite certain it will be pretty fast."

This speaks to the heart of the fentanyl crisis, a problem born in the U.S.—an unmatched global appetite for new and even dangerous designer drugs. As long as this demand exists, the U.S. is reliant on other countries to handle its own underlying issue.

"The Chinese did it at our behest, they do not have the problem. We have the problem," the DEA official said. "We don't manufacture fentanyl, we use fentanyl. They don't use fentanyl, they manufacture fentanyl, and also we cannot even keep our side of the sidewalk clean."

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A DEA agent handles pills intercepted as part of a shipment estimated to contain some $24 million worth of fentanyl at the Drug Enforcement Administration Northeast Laboratory in New York City on April 27. Christopher Leaman/Newsweek