Pubdate: Fri, 10 Jun 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Azam Ahmed


MEXICO CITY - The drug that killed Prince has become a favorite of 
Mexican cartels because it is extremely potent, popular in the United 
States - and immensely profitable, American officials say.

Law enforcement and border authorities in the United States warn that 
Mexican cartels are using their own labs to produce the drug, 
fentanyl, as well as receiving shipments from China. Then the cartels 
distribute the substance through their vast smuggling networks to 
meet rising American demand for opiates and pharmaceuticals.

"It is really the next migration of the cartels in terms of making 
profit," said Jack Riley, acting deputy administrator of the Drug 
Enforcement Administration. "This goes to the heart of the marketing 
genius of the cartels. They saw this coming."

It is still unclear how Prince, who the authorities say died of an 
overdose of fentanyl in April, obtained the drug. Doctors can 
prescribe fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, for cancer patients and for 
palliative care, including end of life treatment.

But the presence of illicit fentanyl is surging to levels not seen 
since 2006, when a similar streak of overdose deaths in the United 
States was connected to a single laboratory in Mexico.

Officials say the popularity of fentanyl among the cartels hews to a 
familiar narrative: changes in the illegal drug market and basic opportunism.

As a crackdown on prescription drugs drove the cost of pills like 
oxycodone higher, the cartels began banking on users opting for 
heroin instead. It was cheaper, more readily available and relatively 
easy to procure.

Now, fentanyl, which can be made in a laboratory without the hassle 
of growing poppy, is a more lucrative - and deadly - iteration.

Hundreds of Americans have died in fentanyl-related overdoses in 
recent years. Yet it offers tremendous profits for criminal networks 
in places like Massachusetts, where the fentanyl epidemic has 
arguably hit hardest.

A kilogram of heroin purchased from Colombia for roughly $6,000 can 
be sold wholesale for $80,000, according to D.E.A. data.

But a kilogram of pure fentanyl, purchased from China for less than 
$5,000, is so potent that it can be stretched into 16 to 24 kilograms 
when using cutting agents like talcum powder or caffeine. Each 
kilogram can then be sold wholesale for $80,000 - for a total profit 
in the neighborhood of $1.6 million.

"Cartels and drug traffickers are not stupid," said Jorge Javier 
Romero Vadillo, a professor at CIDE, a Mexico City university. "They 
are rational economic actors, whose actions and decisions are 
directly related to demand."

Mexican officials are wary of the American warnings that the cartels 
are responsible for widespread production or distribution of 
fentanyl, worried that their counterparts in the United States are 
instinctively blaming Mexico even though the public data on fentanyl 
traffic from Mexico is still limited.

There have been notable seizures of the drug south of the border, 
however. Last fall, federal agents in Mexico discovered 27 kilograms 
of fentanyl - the dosage equivalent of almost one ton of heroin - on 
a remote landing strip in the state of Sinaloa.

The raid also uncovered about 19,000 tablets of fentanyl, marked by 
traffickers to look like oxycodone. Two men detained in the raid were 
high-ranking members of the Sinaloa cartel, led by the drug kingpin 
Joaquin Guzman Loera, also known as El Chapo.

"After the 2015 seizure, we ramped up efforts among all government 
agencies," said Brig. Gen. Inocente Fermin Hernandez, the head of 
Mexico's national center for anti-crime policy, planning and 
information, a division of the attorney general's office. "We realize 
we need to take appropriate measures to know and investigate if we 
are dealing with fentanyl every time we find a laboratory."

For more than a year, the Drug Enforcement Administration in the 
United States has warned of a fentanyl epidemic at home. Its potency, 
roughly 40 times that of heroin, has made fentanyl a popular choice 
for addicts and a profitable choice for dealers. Broken down and sold 
in less pure forms, the drug can be 20 times more profitable than 
heroin, or more, experts say.

American border agents seized about 200 pounds of synthetic opioids 
like fentanyl last year, the majority of it along the southwest 
American border with Mexico, said R. Gil Kerlikowske, the 
commissioner of United States Customs and Border Protection.

While the numbers are still small, he said, the increase is alarming. 
In 2014, only eight pounds were seized.

Since 2010, fentanyl recovered by American law enforcement across the 
country has risen twenty-fold, from 640 samples tested to 13,002 last 
year, according to data from the National Forensic Laboratory 
Information System, a D.E.A. program.

Deaths by overdose have moved in lock step with the rising 
availability of the drug: From late 2013 to late 2014, the most 
recent years available, more than 700 Americans died from 
fentanyl-related overdoses.

Fentanyl is used in many forms by the cartels, officials say. It is 
mixed with heroin to increase its strength, a combination known 
locally as diablito, or little devil.

It can also be diluted and ingested directly. Taken directly, the 
dosage can be as small as a few grains of salt.

Increasingly, however, fentanyl is being fashioned into fake 
oxycodone pills, a recognition that the recent rise in heroin 
addiction in America stems from the abuse of prescription painkillers.

In February, a 19-year-old was stopped crossing the border from 
Tijuana into the United States with about 1,200 pills marked as 
oxycodone. The young man, Sergio Linyuntang Mendoza Bohon, was 
stopped at the border by an agent who noticed a suspicious bulge in 
his waistline.

His underwear was lined with drugs. He told agents that he was paid 
$300 to smuggle the pills, along with less than an ounce of white 
powder. Though he told investigators the pills were painkillers, the 
lab results tested positive for fentanyl.

Some experts are more circumspect about the role of the cartels, 
saying there is still a lack of hard data to show their extensive 
involvement. The majority of drug seizures in Mexico still largely 
consist of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.

But others suspect the low numbers are because the Mexican 
authorities have not been testing for fentanyl when they seize drugs, 
a problem that also plagues local law enforcement in the United States.

Mr. Romero, the professor, said the full dimensions of the problem in 
Mexico are as yet unknown.

"Our problem is that we don't have any hard data to compare and 
contrast," he said.

The D.E.A. said the relative newness of fentanyl abuse means that law 
enforcement officials are seeing the early indications of the trend 
on the ground. States like California, Massachusetts and New 
Hampshire have had alarming rises in overdose deaths and the 
penetration of fentanyl in their local drug markets. Officials in 
those states also blame Mexico's cartels.

Drug enforcement officials say the distribution of fentanyl mirrors 
the distribution patterns of other cartel drugs, like heroin. Mr. 
Riley of the D.E.A. says a Chicago street gang known as the Gangster 
Disciples, which traffics drugs for cartels in the city, is now 
pumping fentanyl into the market, in Chicago and all the way to New Hampshire.

General Hernandez was more skeptical, saying that there had been just 
four episodes involving fentanyl that the Mexican government was 
aware of in the last decade, starting with production in a 
clandestine lab in 2006 and then, more recently, the raid in late 2015.

Still, he acknowledged that the search for the drug was new, and that 
its prevalence is most likely underreported. Working with the 
Americans, he said, his office is now paying more attention to the 
issue, including instructing personnel conducting raids at 
laboratories to take more precautions than usual.

Fentanyl, which often comes in white powder form, can be introduced 
through contact with the skin. Given its power, it can cause an 
overdose just by touching it, especially among nonusers.

Still, General Hernandez said there were no records of any Mexicans 
dying from an overdose, neither users nor producers, raising the 
question of whether Mexico's role in the fentanyl epidemic is 
overblown. But he also acknowledged that, as with other drugs, Mexico 
is more often a provider of illicit drugs than a user of them.

"Fentanyl is very difficult to detect at first glance," he said. "Not 
everybody is able to recognize it."

Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom