Efforts by the United States to curb the influx of the deadly opioid fentanyl culminated in the brief arrest of a son of imprisoned kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman last month in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, the home turf of the notorious Sinaloa cartel.
Ovidio Guzman was briefly arrested after the United States requested his extradition, although he was later freed by outnumbered officials who feared a bloody confrontation with cartel henchmen.
Mexican Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said Nov. 1 that Guzman was wanted on allegations of smuggling the potent opioid. Last year alone, synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, caused the deaths of more than 32,000 Americans.
“One of the very reasons for the U.S. interest, and the basis for the extradition order, is, in fact, the suspected link between this alleged criminal and introducing fentanyl into the United States,” Durazo told reporters.
China has been identified as the largest and primary source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogs entering the United States, according to government commissions, law enforcement, and testimony from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Much of the fentanyl precursor chemicals are sent to Mexico from China; Mexican cartels then synthesize these precursors in their labs.
In August, the Mexican navy found 52,000 pounds of fentanyl powder in a container from a Danish ship that was coming from Shanghai. The navy intercepted the 40-foot container on Aug. 24, at the Port of Cardenas.
Ovidio Guzman’s role has grown since his father was extradited in 2017 to face drug charges; Joaquin Guzman is currently serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
A U.S. district court indictment against Ovidio Guzman, issued in February, charged him with conspiring to traffic cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana, but didn’t directly mention fentanyl.
President Donald Trump in August said Mexico needed to do more to halt fentanyl production and smuggling across the U.S.–Mexico border. The Sinaloa cartel is likely one of Mexico’s top fentanyl traffickers to the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The cartel recently appears to have moved into the production of the drug. In September, DEA officers took part in a “covert mission” in Sinaloa, the agency said in a statement at the time.
“Profit margins for fentanyl and methamphetamine are driving the drug trade by the cartels,” the statement said.
Fentanyl is made in a lab with chemicals and is cheap to produce. According to the Heritage Foundation, the profit margin is enormous: a $3,000 investment can return $1.5 million in earnings.
In April, officials raided a fentanyl lab in Sinaloa’s capital of Culiacan, where the younger Guzman and his brothers control the drug trade. Law enforcement also busted a fentanyl lab in Mexico City last year.
The Sinaloa cartel, according to the DEA, is one of the oldest and more established drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. The cartel controls drug trafficking activity in different regions in Mexico, especially along the Pacific Coast, although its stronghold is in the state of Sinaloa.
The cartel primarily smuggles its illicit drugs into the United States “through crossing points located along Mexico’s border with California, Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas,” the DEA said in February this year.
The opioid crisis, on average, takes the lives of 130 people each day across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The crisis in the United States has cost the economy at least $631 billion in just four years, according to a report released by the Society of Actuaries.
Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the CDC, and as little as 0.25 milligrams of fentanyl absorbed through the skin can be lethal. Illegally made fentanyl is often mixed with heroin or cocaine to increase the euphoric effects of the drugs, the center said—with or without the user’s knowledge.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl, however, has been approved for treating severe pain for conditions such as late-stage cancer and is prescribed by doctors typically through transdermal patches or lozenges.
Reuters contributed to this report