Opioid Threat at ‘Epidemic Level’ as Cartels Sidestep Lockdowns

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The drug war initiated by the U.S. in 1971 was pursued in dozens of country. Here a Mexican soldier stands guard outside a suspected Meth factory. Photo by A R via Flickr

The American economy may have suffered serious disruption because of COVID-19, but it hasn’t deterred drug traffickers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Last year, cartels adjusted to restrictions caused by disruptions in their transport and supply chain to cause greater damage than ever, with the opioid threat remaining at “epidemic level” and methamphetamine and cocaine use “worsening both in volume and reach,”  the DEA reported in its 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.

Transnational criminal organizations and violent street gangs are still “flooding our streets with dangerous drugs,” the DEA said.

More than 83,000 people lost their lives to drug-related overdoses in the U.S. over the year ending in July 2020, a significant increase over the previous year that reported70,000 overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Illicit fentanyl is one of the primary drugs fueling the epidemic in overdoses, said the DEA.

Mexican cartels are increasingly responsible for producing and supplying fentanyl, while China “remains a key source” of the precursor chemicals needed for the drug’s production.

Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) “remain the greatest criminal drug threat in the United States,” said the DEA.

DEA identified nine main drug cartels in Mexico which are able to “maintain drug distribution cells in cities across the United States that either report directly to TCO leaders in Mexico or report indirectly through intermediaries,” said the report.

Of the nine, the Sinaloa Cartel is “one of the oldest and most established TCOs in Mexico, with a significant presence in 15 of the 32 Mexican states and controlling drug trafficking along the Pacific Coast in northwestern Mexico and near Mexico’s southern and northern borders.”

“The Sinaloa Cartel exports and distributes wholesale amounts of fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana in the United States by maintaining distribution hubs in various cities,” said the report.

Illicit drugs are primarily smuggled into the United States, with the cartel employing  “gatekeepers” assigned to points of entry (POEs) and controlling Arizona and California area smuggling corridors into the United States.

“The primary fentanyl threat to the United States is most likely the Sinaloa Cartel due to their demonstrated ability to run clandestine fentanyl synthesis labs” in regions within Mexico that they control, said the report.

Mexican TCOs move product into the U.S. via commercial and passenger vehicles as well as via underground tunnels, said the DEA.  These cross-border tunnels originate in Mexico and lead into safe houses on the U.S. side of the border.

“TCOs exploit major highway routes for transportation and the most common method employed involves smuggling illicit drugs through U.S. POEs in passenger vehicles with
concealed compartments or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor-trailers,” according to the report.

“Mexican TCOs’ long term operational outlook and capacities were not significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with regard to their drug trafficking and drug production activities,” said the DEA.

The report described Asian criminal organizations in the United States as playing a key role in the laundering of illicit drug proceeds, often working jointly with other criminal groups in Mexico, Columbia, and the Dominican Republic.

“Money laundering tactics employed by Asian TCOs generally involve the transfer of funds between China and Hong Kong, using front companies to facilitate international money movement,” said the report. “Asian TCOs also use underground banking and mirroring schemes.”

The DEA said that Mexican TCOs are expected to continue to dominate the wholesale importation and distribution of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and fentanyl in U.S. markets.

“No other criminal organizations currently possess a logistical infrastructure to rival that of Mexican TCOs,” said the DEA.

The National Drug Assessment report can be read here.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.

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