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Drug Trafficking in 2019: Who’s Really to Blame?

Drug trafficking is hardly a new problem, but it is one that constantly changes in response to new trends in drug culture, law enforcement operations, and technological advancements. In 2019, some of the names in the drug trade are familiar, but their methods and mediums are not.

Cocaine Through Colombia and Mexico

Despite many attempts at reform, Colombia remains the biggest producer of cocaine in the world.

As much as 423,000 acres of land (37 percent of the country’s size) was used to grow coca (the plant used to make cocaine) in 2017. The country unwittingly harvests enough coca to produce 1,520 tons of cocaine, a drastic increase from previous years. This is a sign that the drug trade has not only resisted efforts to reform Colombia, but has thrived.

In explaining how Mexico is the funnel through which drug cartels spread heroin throughout the U.S, Business Insider writes that the flood of opioid-based prescription medication in the United States led to a demand for cheaper, more powerful heroin — a fact that cartels based in Central and South America were eager to exploit.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, “Mexico, and to a lesser extent, Colombia, dominate the US heroin market.” Factors for this include their proximity to the United States, a well-established network for distribution and transportation, and a unique ability to satisfy demand.

Sinaloa’s Return

Another factor behind the move into opioid trafficking is that as more American states experiment with loosening marijuana regulations, the cannabis trade is not as lucrative as it once was.

The cartel at the center of the heroin trade to America is the infamous Sinaloa cartel. Its former leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was captured in Mexico in 2016, extradited to the United States the following year, and given a sentence of “life plus 30 years” in 2019. When he was picked up, the cartel was torn apart by a vicious struggle for control, with the Jalisco New Generation organization also threatening to unseat its once vice-like grip on the drug trade.

However, in the wake of Guzman’s removal, the Sinaloa cartel has re-established itself as the dominant force in Mexico. The DEA and other officials fear that this will set the cartel up to resume its trafficking for 2019 without suffering too much from the loss of Guzman. 

The Big Moneymaker

drug cartel

The Sinaloa cartel is active on Mexico’s Pacific coast, where it oversees cultivation of opium in the so-called Golden Triangle. This area shares the name with the traditional Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, which used to be the center for the world’s opium production. The new Golden Triangle now dominates the cocaine and methamphetamine trade in the Southern Hemisphere.

A DEA official told Business Insider that the opioid epidemic in the United States has made heroin “the big moneymaker” for the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels. As pharmaceutical manufacturers reformulate their products to be less prone to abuse, and regulators clamp down on the ways prescription opioids can be diverted, drug dealers and patients turn to heroin as a cheaper, ubiquitous alternative.

Cartels have always followed trends in America, supplying drugs as tastes demanded, whether it was cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, or heroin. When opioid-based painkillers flooded the market, and it became clear that heroin would have many buyers in the wake of the flood, the cartels sprang into action, cultivating opium poppies to extract heroin.

They do this in improvised labs that use tools in a household kitchen. The labs are set up near growing areas, run by chemists who are not formally trained as chemists, but who know enough on how to process opium into morphine and heroin. It might be the only chemistry they know.

One of these chemists, or “cooks,” told a local news agency that he makes 30 kilos of heroin a month; before, it used to be just 40 kilos a year. The loss of Joaquin Guzman did not put a dent in the cartel’s business.

From Heroin to Fentanyl

The Mexican government has touted its success in fighting back against the cartel. In late 2017, it burned 57.402 acres of heroin crops, well in excess of any amount in the past year. However, it is unknown how many actual plants were destroyed.

When the heroin is processed, it is transported over land, usually smuggled through ports of entry on the border between the United States and Mexico. Traffickers use the complex interstate highway system to reach their destinations around the American mainland.

Members of the Sinaloa cartel have been known to travel to American destinations to oversee big transactions and take charge of distributing bulk quantities to local contacts. Even regions as far away as New York City have become hubs for the cartel, as they extend their reach far beyond the southeastern border.

The fervent demand for heroin has led to the rise of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is much deadlier than most other opioids on the black market. Fentanyl is the strongest opioid on the planet that has been approved for human use. It is only prescribed for the most severe forms of breakthrough pain, and it is used as an anesthetic for surgery. 

This has made fentanyl a more profitable product than heroin. A record number of seizures in New York indicate that as much as 80 percent of the narcotics confiscated were distributed by the Sinaloa cartel. 

Business as Usual

For the cartel, the death and misery of opioid addiction is simply business. The seizures and the setbacks are merely the cost of doing business. “Americans buy drugs, we sell,” according to one Sinaloa member, speaking to the local news outlet in Mexico. If we don’t sell it to them, he said, “somebody else is going to do it.”

Mexican cartels are much more than simply gangs looking to make quick money. They are structured like a corporation. They understand the market very well, and they respond quickly to any changes, often staying multiple steps ahead of law enforcement and criminal justice. Unlike most corporations, however, the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels don’t have any bureaucracy. Decisions are quickly made by the bosses, and those decisions are ruthlessly carried out by layers of intermediaries, none of whom are afraid to use bloodshed.

The Chinese Connection

A Bloomberg report on the fentanyl trade originating out of China showed how affluent white-collar businessmen ran their trafficking empire like a legitimate business, offering free samples and “next-day delivery, tracking numbers and 100-percent money-back guarantees” to customers all around the world, including the United States.

Undercover DEA agents went to factories in China to gather enough evidence to return an indictment against a Chinese national for conspiring to manufacture and import 22 substances deemed illegal by the Food and Drug Administration. Among those 22 substances are fentanyl and four analogues (derivations). While China’s government criminalized the production of standard fentanyl, none of the analogues were illegal in China when the national was accused of shipping them to two American smugglers in Mississippi.

That attention to detail is symptomatic of how all parties on the chain (manufacturers, distributors, smugglers and traffickers) “stay abreast of the law to stay ahead of it,” in the words of one of the DEA agents. 

Buying Fentanyl Online

scientist holding baggie fentanyl

Before the wave of opioids hit the United States, overdose deaths related to fentanyl were rare. In 2014, the spike started, with over 5,000 fatalities connected to its use. In September 2017, more than 26,000 deaths were blamed on fentanyl, which accounted for half the total number of opioid-related deaths in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected the numbers to continue to rise into 2018 and 2019.

Fentanyl’s potency is “almost beyond comprehension,” writes Bloomberg, so much so that it can only be prescribed by the millionth of a gram; 2 mg is enough to cause death. When fentanyl is produced in criminal settings, it is usually mixed with other substances as a way of cutting down expenses for the manufacturers; however, this means that people who are purchasing illicit fentanyl often do not know exactly what they are injecting into their veins.

What has helped the drug get trafficked to the extent it has in 2018 and 2019 is the weaponization of the dark web, encrypted messaging applications and decentralized cryptocurrencies, which manufacturers use to hide themselves from law enforcement. While custom officials are trained to detect bulk drug shipments, the manufacturers can utilize the dark web to spread the products through the postal system or FedEx.

In 2018, The Atlantic wrote of “the surprising ease of buying fentanyl online,” with one man in Ohio paying $2,500 to an online seller over 10 months to receive 15 packages through the postal service. The business ended when the man overdosed from “acute fentanyl intoxication” just a month after receiving his final package, which originated in China. 

A Smuggler’s Dream

All this comes together to give fentanyl an “astronomical profit margin,” making it one of the hottest drugs on the black market. When the DEA went undercover to China, they bought a kilogram of fentanyl for $3,800; when turned into tablet form, the product could be sold for $30 million in a place like Gulfport, Mississippi, where local police first noticed the presence of fentanyl. A similar heroin shipment, on the other hand, would sell for just $200,000.

This makes fentanyl a dream for smugglers because it is compact and valuable. This also makes it one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement and public health officials, who are reeling from how the drug has monopolized the trafficking industry.

While heroin requires conspicuously vast fields of opium poppies (which require constant maintenance and armed defense), the raw materials and tools to cook fentanyl are much cheaper. Processing the drug takes a week, and the instructions are as simple as following a recipe.

Criminal manufacturers know local and foreign laws well enough to tweak their formulations, so the resulting product is legal enough to skirt the law. Some batches are cooked just enough to produce the euphoric high that users want. Some are potent enough that the dose will be inevitably fatal. The traffickers make a sale either way. 

Fentanyl Analogues

Fentanyl is a Schedule II controlled substance in the United States, meaning that it has an accepted medical use (pain management and anesthesia), but it is illegal to use out of that context. Most of the fentanyl that is bought and sold in America, however, comes from overseas laboratories, produced with the explicit intention of being sold for recreational use. The product is created in China, then trafficked via the dark web to cartels in Mexico, who smuggle it to the United States via their well-established channels.

The DEA has placed fentanyl analogues in their Schedule I list of controlled substances because these derivations of fentanyl have no legitimate medical uses.

Perhaps ironically, illegal fentanyl is not widely used in China, even though the market for synthetic opioids is a flourishing one. Bloomberg writes that the country is home to “a vast chemical industry,” which can legally obtain ingredients that are banned or regulated in other countries because of minimal government oversight.

This has been a source of contention between the American and Chinese governments, both of which have been slow to respond to all the various forms of fentanyl that are being churned out. Each has tacitly accused the other of being primarily responsible for the problem. The leaders of both countries (Donald Trump and Xi Jinping) have met to discuss improved cooperation between their respective agencies and governments to target the production and transportation of fentanyl, and American officials welcomed China’s addition of 10 fentanyl analogues to that country’s list of controlled drugs in 2015. The Atlantic noted that even as China moved against fentanyl analogues, traffickers still sold the products as “special offers.”

Enormous Demand in the U.S.

Chinese officials had pushed back against the claim that their country is the source for most of the world’s illegal fentanyl production. The problem, said the China National Narcotics Control Commission, is that “such drugs are in enormous demand in the U.S.” Nonetheless, in April 2019, China banned all forms of illegal fentanyl, which experts hope will plug gaps in how slowly governments move to criminalize drugs.

However, the ban stops short of covering all the chemicals that are used to make fentanyl and its analogues. These chemicals are usually sent from China to Mexico, where manufacturers use them to make the fentanyl that eventually makes its way to the United States.

Most of these chemicals have also been banned by the Chinese government, but some are still legal to produce and trade under Chinese law. Banning all of them would be impossible, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and other experts.

Public health advocates in the U.S. remain skeptical about whether regulatory bodies in China could fully remove fentanyl analogues from the black market. Because fentanyl is so potent, even a small amount can do as much damage as heroin or cocaine. Nonetheless, they say, a small chance of success makes the gesture worthwhile, calling for the federal government to change its own policies regarding the use of medically assisted treatment for opioid addiction.

Notwithstanding this change, the official position of the Chinese government is that the blame for fentanyl deaths remains with the United States. 

The Skyrocketing Fentanyl Business

Ultimately, what helps traffickers, what hinders law enforcement, and what hurts people is that the United States and China have very different rules when it comes to drug regulation and economic competition. Despite the public health crisis caused by opioid trafficking in the United States, the Chinese government is not averse to the billions of dollars this black market generates on its soil.

Even after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictments against the alleged fentanyl traffickers in China, the Chinese government refused to extradite either of the individuals named in the indictment, claiming that the United States “failed to show that either man broke Chinese law.” The country’s Narcotics Control Commission told Vice News that nothing the men did reached the point where the Chinese government had the legal authority to prosecute them.

Meanwhile, drug enforcement operations continue in the United States. Even as the rate of prescription medication fatalities declines, “fentanyl deaths skyrocket,” according to USA Today. The synthetic opioid was implicated in 32,000 deaths in 2018. In Los Angeles, a Huntington Beach resident is accused of using the dark web to sell almost 100,000 fentanyl or fentanyl analogue pills to distributors in South Dakota. The New York Times interviewed a police sergeant in the Bronx, who said that stories of people overdosing on fentanyl have become a daily occurrence.

Bloomberg concluded that it’s unlikely the Chinese businessmen will ever see the inside of an American courtroom or prison for their role in fentanyl trafficking, leaving the DEA agents to continue their work of enforcement and education. They cannot afford to be too frustrated that the Chinese nationals they identified are not being brought to justice. According to one of the agents, there are so many others out there, so their work continues. 

A Trail of Addiction & Violence

On the other side of the world, authorities are waging a daily battle against traffickers using the network of Pacific Islands to smuggle methamphetamine and cocaine from Latin America into Australia and New Zealand. It is the drug trade no one has heard of, writes The Guardian. Smugglers are using idyllic tourist spots not only as meeting places, but as new locations for their contraband. The result is “a trail of addiction and violence” across the Pacific Ocean.

Affected countries include Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, New Caledonia, and Papua New Guinea, where the pristine beaches are used as storage for illegal drugs with a value of multiple billions of dollars. Traditionally, these countries have served as transit points in the trans-Pacific drug route, but as the volume and intensity of the traffic has increased over the last five years, so has the spread of illegal drugs within those countries.

As cocaine production is at its highest rate, and with Australia having one of the highest rates of per capita cocaine use anywhere in the world, the entire Pacific region has become ensnared in the drug trade. This has led to Australia having the most expensive rates of cocaine in the world, but widespread availability. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that users can place an order and have it delivered to their door faster than pizza companies can reach a customer’s house.

The Center of the Global Meth Trade

Meth pipe on a glass table

The problem is such that Australia’s ABC posits that the war on drugs in the entire region of Southeast Asia has failed, becoming the new center of drug trafficking in the world. One of the biggest reasons for this is that a number of governments in the Southeast Pacific have instituted zero-tolerance policies for drug crimes, filling death row prisons by the thousands, but little has been done to change the socioeconomic conditions that encourage drug smuggling and abuse. Despite showy law enforcement actions, “the local trade in methamphetamine and other illicit drugs” has flourished.

There are 14 countries in the world that use the death penalty for drug offenses, and half of them are in Southeast Asia : Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. However, the black market for drugs in these countries is booming at an unprecedented rate. Traffickers use these locations as staging zones to transport their products to bigger countries, such as Australia.

In Indonesia, for example, the country’s National Anti-Narcotics Agency “has determined that the death penalty should be applied to drug lords” because the country has “become a market for illegal meth.” Government officials hope that by setting an example (of executing drug traffickers), other countries will be inspired to take similar measures to cripple the smuggling infrastructure across the region. 

No Deterrent Effect

Regardless, repeated research has strongly found that “the implementation of the death penalty does not work as an effective deterrent to crime.” In Iran, for example, 90 percent of the executions there in 2015 were for crimes related to drug smuggling, but it took only a year for the country’s head of judiciary for social affairs to acknowledge that despite “fighting full-force against smugglers,” not only has “the execution of drug smugglers had no deterrent effect,” but Iran even experienced an increase in the volume of drugs brought into the country, the variety of drugs, and the number of people involved in the trade and consumption of drugs.

The same reality has been found in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, suggesting that even with the implementation of the death penalty, those countries have become a hub for drug trafficking in 2019. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime calculated that the methamphetamine black market spreading across Southeast Asia (also spreading into East Asian countries like Bangladesh, and Oceanic countries in Australia and New Zealand) is worth upward of $60 billion, which by some calculations makes it the biggest meth market in the world. A combination of location, lawlessness, “rampant corruption and relatively lax border protection” have led to the region becoming a stronghold for a new wave of drug smugglers.

Not helping the problem is what an Australian expert called “an unquenchable thirst for methamphetamine.”

The Colombian Example

There is some cause for hope. Thailand’s military-controlled government legalized the production of medical marijuana, which the Asia division of Human Rights Watch suggested might be a more effective way of working against the methamphetamine menace.

Similarly, Malaysia’s government abolished the implementation of mandatory death penalties for drug crimes, and decriminalized drug addiction and minor possession of drugs, while warning that actual drug trafficking will remain a crime.

The solutions take a long time to implement, and the results might not be seen for a generation. Until then, hardline governments in these Southeast Asian countries are still tempted to go after the drug dealers and users with full force. The chief of police in Malaysia even compared his situation to the drug trafficking problem on the other side of the world, saying that “if we do not tackle it, I think it will reach the level of what we find in Colombia.”

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