Drug Overdose Deaths at Record High, Mexican Cartels Stronger Than Ever: DEA

By Charlotte Cuthbertson
Charlotte Cuthbertson
Charlotte Cuthbertson
Senior Reporter
Charlotte Cuthbertson is a senior reporter with The Epoch Times who primarily covers border security and the opioid crisis.
March 3, 2021Updated: March 3, 2021

Drug overdose deaths spiked during the first few months of the 2020 pandemic-related lockdowns, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More than 83,500 people died from an overdose in the 12-month period ending July 2020—an average of 228 deaths per day.

It’s the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded, and the final number, which is up 24 percent over the same period in the year prior, is expected to be even higher.

The CDC issued an emergency health advisory on Dec. 17, 2020, alerting public health workers to the acceleration of overdose fatalities in lockstep with widespread shutdowns.

“This represents a worsening of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States,” the CDC stated.

An analysis by the Well Being Trust in May 2020 estimates a possible 75,000 additional “deaths of despair,” including suicide as well as drug and alcohol abuse over the next several years, due to the shutdown measures.

Epoch Times Photo
Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (other than methadone) between 2005 and 2018. (DEA 2021 report)

Illicit fentanyl is chiefly responsible for fueling the continuing opioid crisis, according to a March 2 report from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, highly addictive, and deadly. Buyers may be unaware that the drugs they buy contain illicit fentanyl, of which a 2 mg dose can be fatal.

Fentanyl is produced in “foreign clandestine laboratories” and trafficked into the United States in powder and pill form, the DEA report states.

The big killer is counterfeit pills, known as “Mexican oxys,” which contain fentanyl and are made to look like blue Oxycodone prescription pain pills.

Epoch Times Photo
Areas of influence of major Mexican cartel within the United States. (DEA report 2021)

Mexican cartels are manufacturing the pills using precursor chemicals supplied by China, according to the DEA. Chinese money-laundering networks also provide the cartels with a way to clean their cash.

“The majority of heroin and fentanyl available in the United States is smuggled overland across the [southern border],” the report states. Fentanyl is also being ordered online and shipped directly from China through international mail and commercial parcel services.

“China-sourced fentanyl typically is smuggled in small volumes and generally tested over 90 percent pure,” the DEA report states.

While controlled prescription drugs have decreased in volume on the black market, they remain a major source of addiction and death. About 80 percent of heroin users began their addiction with prescription painkillers, and prescription opioids were involved in nearly 15,000 U.S. deaths in 2018, averaging 41 each day, according to the CDC.

“Hydrocodone products such as Vicodin or Lortab represent the most commonly misused subtype of prescription pain relievers overall at 2 percent of the total U.S. population,” the DEA stated.


Mexican cartels have also created methamphetamine super labs capable of producing tons of the drug within days.

“Drug poisoning deaths involving methamphetamine continue to rise as methamphetamine purity and potency remain high while prices remain relatively low,” according to the DEA.

As with other drugs, the cartels control the “wholesale methamphetamine distribution, while both Mexican and domestic criminal groups typically control retail distribution in the United States.”

Epoch Times Photo
Methamphetamine seizures on the southern border by Customs and Border Protection between 2013 and 2019. (DEA 2021 report)


Cocaine trafficking remains steady and deaths involving cocaine have increased every year since 2013, according to the DEA. Colombian-origin cocaine dominates the market in the United States, and Mexican cartels control the wholesale distribution.

“Local U.S. criminal groups and street gangs facilitate mid-and retail-level distribution,” the DEA report states. “Moreover, the production and distribution of crack cocaine is mainly handled by local U.S. criminal groups and street gangs.”

Florida is a main transit location for cocaine trafficking, with California, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico all experiencing large amounts of cocaine seizures by law enforcement.


The illicit marijuana market is turning to more domestic product as more states have legalized recreational cultivation and use. But, the DEA says, Mexico provides the most foreign marijuana.

“Domestic use of marijuana remains high and is likely to increase as state legalization continues and perception of risk by potential users continues to decrease,” the DEA report states.

“The high availability of high-potency marijuana, marijuana concentrate products, and trendy paraphernalia will likely continue to entice potential users.”

Marijuana concentrates are more prolific, especially among young people, who often ingest them via electronic cigarettes and vaping devices; they’re also available in edible products. Illicit concentrates, often distilled using butane, can contain more than 90 percent delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

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