Fentanyl is feeding the opioid epidemic in the US

Fentanyl seizures in Mexico are on the rise, prompting Mexico and the United States to pledge to boost bilateral efforts to combat the production and trafficking of the drug, which is a major contributor to the deadly opioid epidemic currently ravaging the United States.

Mexico is ramping up efforts to combat fentanyl, according to Alberto Elías Beltrán, a Mexican deputy attorney general for judiciary and international affairs. Since the start of 2017, the country has made four seizures of the synthetic opioid, he said, while during the entirety of the previous ten years, authorities made a total of just 12 fentanyl seizures.

Beltrán's comments were made during the inauguration of the first National Fentanyl Conference for Forensic Chemists in Mexico City on May 16. The event was attended by law enforcement officials from around the country, and "is a part of broader international cooperation on fentanyl," US Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson told InSight Crime following the event.

"We're making sure laboratories know how to safely process fentanyl so they can fulfill their key investigative role, help determine the origin of fentanyl, and how it may be trafficked. It's putting both countries in a stronger position to tackle the threat of illicit production and trafficking of opioids moving forward," said Jacobson.

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Some 50 times more powerful than heroin, fentanyl is usually mixed into heroin products or counterfeit pills, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Although also produced legally by pharmaceutical companies in the United States, the DEA says in its most recent National Drug Threat Assessment Summary that illicit fentanyl was the main contributor to the 79 percent increase in deaths related to synthetic opioids recorded between 2013 and 2014.

In the state of New Hampshire alone, 351 people overdosed fatally on opiates during 2015, according to data provided to Fusion by the state's medical examiner. Fentanyl was a factor in 253 of the deaths.

Along with heroin and prescription painkillers, the DEA considers the synthetic painkiller one of the most significant drug threats to the United States. And fentanyl's presence in US markets is expanding rapidly; "exhibits," or seizures, of fentanyl in the United States surged from 934 in 2013 to more than 13,000 in 2015. 

"In 2015, more than 33,000 people died in the United States from opioid-related overdoses. Current trends indicate that this figure will rise in 2016 and 2017," said Jacobson.

InSight Crime Analysis

This recent vow to bolster bilateral efforts is arguably the strongest push yet from the two nations to tackle the fentanyl problem.

But the announcement also points to some worrying factors. The need for this education process points to the lack of capacity of Mexican law enforcement to tackle a problem that is already a major public health and criminal threat for its northern neighbor. The fact that so few fentanyl seizures have been made in Mexico the last decade with the opioid epidemic booming north of the border also reflects this dynamic.

The pledge of increased cooperation also suggests that law enforcement's understanding of the criminal dynamics and logistics involved in fentanyl production and transportation on both sides of the border is murky at best.

The DEA has identified Mexico as a major source of illicit fentanyl. But there is a lack of knowledge on how much of the synthetic opioid is actually produced in Mexico and shipped north, either in pure form or mixed into the increasing amount of heroin produced by domestic criminal groups, and how much of it is shipped in from China for transportation to the United States.

2017-05-15FentanylDEA

Chemicals required to create fentanyl also arrive in Mexico from China. Those chemicals are sometimes used for domestic production in Mexico or smuggled across the border for production in the United States.

What is clear is that the substance is a recent addition to the portfolio of Mexican organized criminal groups. Between 2013 and 2015, seizures of the drug were focused in the southwest United States, mainly near or on the border in California and Arizona, as well as in the northeast.

The development comes shortly after April comments from William Brownfield, the US Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), that Mexico and the United States are in discussions over potential US financing for some of the country's opium poppy eradication efforts -- another Mexico-based criminal activity feeding the opioid crisis in the United States.

Heroin production and trafficking in Mexico has surged in recent years in response to the demand north of the border, much of which is generated by prescription painkiller users switching to cheaper heroin. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Brownfield said that as much as 94 percent of the heroin entering the United States is trafficked from Mexico

These bilateral efforts by law enforcement on both sides of the border demonstrate a better working relationship than public tensions between the administrations of US President Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña would suggest. However, continued bilateral cooperation on fentanyl and heroin will be important for addressing public health and security challenges related to the booming opioid drug trade.

Investigations

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