From Mexican cartel labs to U.S. streets, a lethal fentanyl pipeline

107,622died of drug overdoses within the U.S. in 2021. Fentanyl was accountable for two-thirds of these deaths.

The variety of People killed by the drug has jumped 94 p.c since 2019. On common, one particular person dies of a fentanyl overdose in the USA each seven minutes.

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Fentanyl’s catastrophic surge got here after the Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down on the excesses of the U.S. opioid trade. Thousands and thousands of People who had change into hooked on prescription ache tablets all of the sudden discovered them troublesome or inconceivable to get.

Mexican cartels stepped in to fill the vacuum. Traffickers, who relied for many years on plant-based medicine comparable to heroin, cocaine and marijuana, are actually utilizing chemical compounds in clandestine laboratories to manufacture fentanyl powder and tablets to fulfill the ever-increasing demand in the USA.

Fentanyl is 50 instances stronger than heroin, and its compactness makes it far simpler to smuggle. The artificial opioid is so highly effective {that a} 12 months’s provide of pure fentanyl powder for the U.S. market would slot in the beds of two pickup vans.


How fentanyl compares

with different opioids in power

1 milligram of fentanyl

has the identical efficiency as…

50 milligrams of

heroin

67 milligrams of

oxycodone

and 100 milligrams

of morphine

How fentanyl compares

with different opioids in power

1 milligram of fentanyl

has the identical efficiency as…

50 milligrams of

heroin

67 milligrams of

oxycodone

and 100 milligrams

of morphine

How fentanyl compares with different opioids in power

1 milligram of fentanyl

has the identical efficiency as…

50 milligrams of

heroin

67 milligrams of

oxycodone

and 100 milligrams

of morphine

In a seven-part investigation, The Washington Put up traced the synthetic-drug disaster from the again alleys of Tijuana, Mexico, to official Washington and from warehouses in northern Mexico to neighborhoods in Utah, Colorado and San Diego.

The Washington Put up adopted the fentanyl epidemic from Mexican labs to U.S. streets.

As fentanyl trafficking boomed, U.S. counternarcotics cooperation with Mexico deteriorated. U.S. border authorities are actually overwhelmed, and, since July, the amount of fentanyl seized coming throughout the Mexico border every month has doubled from earlier within the 12 months.

Regardless of document numbers of American deaths, federal officers have been sluggish to react. The DEA mentioned it’s now taking direct purpose on the cartels and the epidemic.

Shifting operations

Early shipments of illicit fentanyl got here from China, a lot of it ordered by means of the darkish internet and hid in small parcels despatched by means of the mail.

Mexican cartel chemists discovered to make fentanyl themselves, shortly changing China as the primary supply of the drug and working on a a lot bigger scale, in accordance with the DEA.

It takes months and acres of land to develop and course of poppy into opioids, however fentanyl may be manufactured in a small lab with comparatively accessible chemical compounds. All the course of to a completed product can take only a few days.

Artificial medicine comparable to meth and fentanyl have essentially modified the illicit drug market. (Luis Velarde and Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Put up)

Seizing the precursor chemical compounds that traffickers want is extraordinarily troublesome. Many are used to make primary items, comparable to medicines, pesticides and cleaning soap.

The overwhelming majority of fentanyl seizures happen at U.S.-Mexico border crossings in California and Arizona.

[A DEA agent tracked the source of fentanyl in Mormon country — a Mexican cartel]

The cartel transportation networks use the U.S. interstate system to succeed in wholesale markets in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and East Coast cities, the place street-level drug sellers take over.

Rising demand

U.S. well being officers don’t have dependable estimates of the variety of fentanyl customers or current deaths within the nation. Key monitoring applications that might have alerted authorities to the elevated circulate of fentanyl have been defunded by the federal authorities simply because the drug was hitting U.S. streets.

[Washington faltered as fentanyl gripped America]

Because the early 2000s, three waves of the opioid epidemic — fueled first by prescription ache tablets, then by heroin and now by illicit fentanyl — have taken the lives of practically three-quarters of 1,000,000 People. The harm to U.S. communities price the financial system $1.5 trillion in 2020 alone, in accordance with a congressional evaluation.

Fentanyl is the worst drug San Diego police Lt. Ken Impellizeri has seen. (Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Put up; Photograph: Salwan Georges/The Washington Put up)

U.S. drug brokers say it has been practically inconceivable to cease fentanyl trafficking. Border authorities can display screen solely a small fraction of the greater than 219,000 automobiles crossing from Mexico every day.

Federal brokers estimate that they’re seizing about 5 to 10 p.c of the medicine coming from Mexico — if that a lot.


Fentanyl seizures on the

southern border have

skyrocketed since 2016

The overwhelming majority of fentanyl seized on the

southern border is confiscated at ports of

entry, primarily in San Diego and

southern Arizona.

Fentanyl seizures on the southern border

have skyrocketed since 2016

The overwhelming majority of fentanyl seized on the southern

border is confiscated at ports of entry, primarily in

San Diego and southern Arizona.

Fentanyl seizures on the southern border

have skyrocketed since 2016

The overwhelming majority of fentanyl seized on the southern border is confiscated at ports of entry,

primarily in San Diego and southern Arizona.

U.S. regulation enforcement companies are on tempo to confiscate greater than 23,000 kilos of fentanyl powder this 12 months, up from 4,000 kilos in 2018, in accordance with a Put up evaluation of the most recent authorities knowledge. The variety of fentanyl tablets seized is projected to succeed in 35 million, up from 289,000 in 2018.

[To live and die in Tijuana, Mexico’s new fentanyl capital]

On the southern border, U.S. authorities have seized an extra 16,200 kilos of fentanyl by means of the primary 11 months of 2022, an evaluation of the latest Customs and Border Safety knowledge reveals. In November, the company seized 2,900 kilos of fentanyl at ports of entry alongside the southern border, the best month-to-month complete ever, an quantity that simply eclipses what the company confiscated throughout the entirety of 2018.

Cascading failures

President Donald Trump informed People {that a} wall alongside the border with Mexico would cease the torrent of medicine. However practically all of the fentanyl coming into the USA passes by means of official border crossings — not by means of the deserts and mountains.

Successive administrations did not deploy expertise to detect the medicine.

LEFT: President Donald Trump and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the White Home on July 8, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Put up) RIGHT: A view of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier. (Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Put up)

The surge of fentanyl into the USA has been exacerbated by a breakdown within the U.S.-Mexico drug warfare partnership. After taking workplace in 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador rejected the safety agreements that had underpinned anti-drug cooperation for a decade, saying that strategy intensified violence in Mexico.

“Mexico needs to do more. We believe that they can do more,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram informed The Put up. “We think it’s vitally important that Mexico work on these issues as tirelessly as we do.”

[How the U.S. lost a key ally in Mexico as fentanyl took off]

Congress commissioned an intensive report, printed in February, which decided that progress in opposition to fentanyl could be achieved solely by pairing enforcement with a discount in U.S. demand.

Mass overdose deaths

Fentanyl is eclipsing heroin and prescription ache tablets because the go-to opioid.

Drug sellers in the USA have been spiking medicine with fentanyl to spice up efficiency and get extra clients hooked. Many customers do not know. New or rare opioid customers are at a far higher threat of fatally overdosing.

In the present day, the drug cartels are also churning out counterfeit oxycodone tablets masquerading as what was as soon as essentially the most sought-after ache capsule on U.S. streets — Mallinckrodt Prescription drugs’ child blue 30 mg tablets referred to as blues or M-30s.

Batches of “rainbow” tablets have been seized on U.S. streets and on the border in current months. Narcotics brokers assume the colours are supposed to sign that the tablets include fentanyl.

The epidemic has hit the younger with alarming velocity and disproportionately killed Blacks and Native People in recent times. In 2020, overdose demise charges elevated 44 p.c for Black individuals and 38 p.c for Native People.

[Why is fentanyl so dangerous?]

Extra persons are overdosing in teams due to fentanyl’s efficiency.

In Colorado, 5 mates died in an condominium in February after utilizing cocaine they didn’t know was spiked with fentanyl. On the time, it was the biggest reported mass deadly overdose within the nation.

As police raced to uncover who provided the medicine, the solutions they might discover underscore the problem of holding sellers accountable for the deaths of their clients.

Put up Experiences: Operation Bitter Cream

Since 2019, the variety of People killed by fentanyl has jumped 94 p.c. In the present day on “Post Reports,” we go inside Operation Bitter Cream — and contained in the pipeline bringing the lethal drug from Mexican labs to U.S. streets.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

About this story

Reporting by Nick Miroff, Scott Higham and Steven Wealthy. Mary Beth Sheridan, Meryl Kornfield and Sari Horwitz additionally contributed to this report. Pictures by Salwan Georges. Movies by Erin Patrick O’Connor and Luis Velarde.

Design and improvement by Tyler Remmel. Further design and improvement by Allison Mann, Laura Padilla Castellanos and Rekha Tenjarla. Graphics by Júlia Ledur. Information evaluation by Steven Wealthy. Video graphics by Sarah Hashemi.

Modifying by Gilbert Dunkley, Chiqui Esteban, Christian Font, Meghan Hoyer, Jai-Leen James, Jessica Koscielniak, Jeff Leen, Thomas LeGro, Jordan Melendrez, Robert Miller and Martha Murdock.

Further assist from Steven Bohner, Matthew Callahan, Sarah Childress, Sarah Dunton, Jenna Lief, Osman Malik, Monika Mathur, Angel Mendoza, Sarah Murray, Ben Pillow, Sarah Pineda, Andrea Platten, Kyley Schultz, Casey Silvestri, John Taylor and Mael Vallejo.

Information for graphics is from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Safety.

Cartel RX

In a seven-part investigation, The Washington Put up adopted the fentanyl epidemic from Mexican labs to U.S. streets.

Methodology

The Put up analyzed knowledge from a variety of sources to measure the rise of fentanyl in the USA and Mexico. Amongst different subjects, reporters compiled knowledge on drug seizures, overdose deaths and reversals, border crossings and fentanyl efficiency.

The info was collected from greater than three dozen federal, state and native sources throughout the USA and Mexico. For instance, for the rely of overdose deaths in the USA, The Put up used mortality knowledge from the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention. To measure knowledge seizures alongside Route 15 in Mexico, reporters standardized a number of datasets from companies together with the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Fiscalía Normal de la República, Secretaría de Marina and the Guardia Nacional.

Reporters made open information requests in each international locations, retrieved knowledge from authorities web sites to create knowledge units and obtained and analyzed seizure knowledge from Excessive Depth Drug Trafficking Areas, run by the White Home’s drug czar, by submitting an in depth analysis proposal to realize entry.

Overview: From Mexican labs to U.S. streets, a deadly pipeline