The Drug Enforcement Administration’s “National Drug Threat Assessment 2024” presents Mexican cartels as the hegemonic force behind the United States’ deadly fentanyl crisis. But this analysis overlooks the complex nature and other operators in the fentanyl industry, as well as the vast global supply network behind the drug’s production, transportation, and distribution.

The DEA report highlights fentanyl as the “deadliest drug threat the United States has ever faced, killing nearly 38,000 Americans in the first six months of 2023 alone.”

SEE ALSO: Brokers: Lynchpins of the Precursor Chemical Flow to Mexico

The Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) are “primarily responsible for driving the current fentanyl epidemic,” according to the report.  Entire chapters are dedicated to each group respectively, crediting them with control over the procurement and trafficking of fentanyl and blaming social media for the expansion of their operations in the United States. 

In line with this analysis, the DEA makes it their top priority to “relentlessly pursue and defeat the two Mexican cartels,” and has created three cross-agency, counter-threat teams to dismantle their networks. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Focusing on defeating criminal organizations in Mexico to address the fentanyl crisis is a necessary part of the United States’ anti-narcotics operations. But it is just one response needed to address a more complex, multi-layered problem.

In fact, Mexican cartels are only one piece of a much larger, more nuanced network behind the production, transportation, and distribution of illicit fentanyl. As highlighted by InSight Crime in previous investigations, the fentanyl industry relies on a multi-layered global industry of legal and illegal actors. 

The fentanyl trade begins with chemical companies operating in legal and illegal spheres, mostly based in China and India, who export the various chemicals used in the production of synthetic drugs to Mexico. Independent brokers facilitate these transactions, which are often masked by the use of cryptocurrency. 

Once in Mexico, many independent and semi-independent producers and “cooks” synthesize fentanyl, which is then laced into counterfeit pills or other drugs. These producers sell the product wholesale to various transport networks in Mexico, including those associated with organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG. 

SEE ALSO: How Mexico Loses the Precursor Chemical Money Trail

Ben Westhoff, the author of “Fentanyl Inc.: How Rogue Chemists are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic,” told InSight Crime these organizations are at the “epicenter” of the illicit trade, and make the vast majority of the profits trafficking the drug. However, he added, “Even if we managed to curtail the cartels’ activity, fentanyl would still come from other places.” 

Those other places include a huge number of smaller players up and down the distribution chain. Given the massive and mostly legal foundation of the trade – a multi-billion-dollar chemical industry – the barriers to entry are minimal. Evidence of this is the rapid way in which prices for fentanyl have bottomed out in the US in less than a decade. 

In sum, focusing solely on Mexican criminal organizations overlooks the broader challenges posed by the industry.

Featured image: A bag of fentanyl in pill form. Credit: Drug Enforcement Agency