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Is Mexico's drug cartel really exiting the Fentanyl business?

Mexican Sinaloa Cartel’s Message to Members: Stop Making Fentanyl or Die

Crime group yields to intensifying U.S. law-enforcement pressure and is kidnapping or killing producers who defy its ban on trafficking the opioid

By José de Córdoba

Oct. 16, 2023 9:30 am ET

CULIACÁN, Mexico—The Sinaloa cartel, the leading exporter of fentanyl to the U.S., is prohibiting the production and trafficking of the illegal opioid in its territory after coming under increasing pressure from U.S. law enforcement, cartel members say.

The order comes from the “Chapitos,” the group led by the four sons of imprisoned drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who transformed the Sinaloa cartel into a global empire managing the supply of narcotics, from Mexican heroin to Colombian cocaine and fentanyl made with precursors from Asia.

The directive from the most powerful faction within the criminal group aims to evade pressure from U.S. law enforcement, operatives say, though some U.S. officials are skeptical that the ban will endure.

The Biden administration is pushing the Mexican government to take more aggressive steps to dismantle the organization, considered by the U.S. to be the top fentanyl trafficking group. U.S. deaths from fentanyl have become an American political issue, with some Republicans, including lawmakers and others running for president, advocating to send the U.S. military into Mexico to fight criminal groups trafficking fentanyl.

For the many people in this northwestern Mexican region who make a living producing and smuggling an opioid that has killed tens of thousands of Americans, the message was clear: stop or die. In June, when the shift away from fentanyl began, three bodies covered with blue pills of the drug appeared on the outskirts of Culiacán.

The Chapitos’ decision to wean themselves from fentanyl trafficking and production comes after a series of high-profile blows against the crime group in recent months.

Chapitos leader Ovidio Guzmán was captured in January during a daylong gunbattle with Mexico’s security forces that killed at least 29 people, including nine soldiers and a Mexican army colonel.

In April, the U.S. indicted the four Guzmán brothers and two dozen of their associates. Anne Milgram, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said at the time that the DEA had infiltrated the Sinaloa cartel and the Chapitos’ network, obtaining “unprecedented access to the organization’s highest levels.”

In September, Ovidio Guzmán was extradited to the U.S.

“He will not be the last,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in Mexico this month when he met with senior government officials.

A midlevel Sinaloa cartel operative, who used to deal in chemical precursors needed to make the synthetic opioid, said the Chapitos are leaving the business in part because they wanted the U.S. to shift its crackdown efforts to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, their chief rival and another leading fentanyl producer.

Exports of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine to the U.S. will likely rise in the near future to make up for the income shortfall from the fentanyl ban, cartel members say. Although the core business of the Sinaloa cartel traditionally centers on illegal narcotics, say U.S. officials, the criminal group has diversified into other illicit activities such as widespread extortion.

U.S. officials with knowledge of the cartel cautioned that there is no significant indication of a change in strategy or output, and likened the move to a public relations ploy.

“In the aggregate it won’t mean anything” in terms of overall fentanyl production, one of the officials said. “They think if they do this, they won’t take as much heat.”

Mexico’s Security Minister Rosa Icela Rodríguez didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met in Mexico City to discuss bilateral strategies to combat fentanyl trafficking and production, about a dozen banners ordering the fentanyl ban were hung from overpasses, billboards and construction sites in Culiacán.

“In Sinaloa, the sale, manufacture, transport or any kind of business involving the substance known as fentanyl, including the sale of chemical products for its elaboration, is permanently banned,” the banners read. “You have been warned. Sincerely yours, the Chapitos.”

Similar banners also appeared in two cities of neighboring Sonora state, which borders the U.S. They were signed by Los Pelones, or “The Bald Ones,” an armed group allied with the Chapitos. Last weekend, similar banners signed by the Tijuana cartel appeared in the border city of Tijuana, which officials say is a major fentanyl entry point to the U.S.

Drug gang leaders appear to be concerned about getting arrested and extradited to the U.S., like Ovidio Guzmán, said Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexican security consultant.

One operator of a fentanyl lab who stopped working three months ago after the bodies were found said that he buried his remaining chemical supplies, fearing a crackdown by the Chapitos. He said he knows of five people, two brothers and three cousins, who were killed because they defied the ban.

Many people in Sinaloa have learned how to produce fentanyl and depend on it for their livelihood, so they are reluctant to shut down business since there are still ways to sell to the U.S., where demand is strong.

“Teaching so many people how to make it was a mistake,” said the midlevel Sinaloa operative.

About a dozen people in Sinaloa have been kidnapped and gone missing over the past 10 days, most of whom were likely involved in the fentanyl underworld, said Miguel Ángel Murillo, a human-rights activist who belongs to the Sinaloa Civic Front, a grassroots organization.

“We believe these kidnappings and disappearances are linked to the ban on fentanyl because their relatives haven’t presented formal complaints to authorities,” he said. “These people are very scared.”

The midlevel Sinaloa cartel operative confirmed that the group is killing those who won’t follow the new dictate. Until a few months ago, he said, he was in charge of some 25 fentanyl labs. “Now I’m destroying them,” he said, in a darkened house in a working-class neighborhood of Culiacán, with skinny dogs barking outside.

“Some stopped producing. Others kept producing, and we are killing them. Others have fled,” he said.

Sinaloa state officials say they don’t have information about the crime group’s prohibition on fentanyl production. Manelich Castilla, a former head of Mexico’s federal police, believes the Sinaloa cartel won’t actually exit fentanyl for good because it means leaving their Jalisco rivals in charge of the profitable business.

Before the ban, there had been excess production of fentanyl in Sinaloa, so the flow of the drug to the U.S. will likely continue over the short term, but the price is likely to increase, cartel members say.

A few miles outside Culiacán on a hilltop overlooking a lush valley, the former lab operator who last year was busy running a pill factory says he shut down production in June after he called the person who supplied him with the precursor chemicals needed to make the synthetic opioid.

“He told me he couldn’t sell any precursors because if he moved them, they would kill him,” said the lab operator. “Without precursors I can’t do anything.”

It is now too dangerous to transport the chemicals in drums in his pickup from Culiacán to his lab outside the city. “If I run into a road checkpoint, they will kill me,” he said.

He hopes an upsurge in the demand for Mexican brown heroin or a more refined product known as China White will tide him over the end of fentanyl. And he said trafficking in guns from the U.S. is another option.

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