The majority of the profits from the sale of fentanyl stays in the U.S.
By: Jim Cason and David Brooks, Correspondents
Washington and New York
Reducing the epidemic of fentanyl addiction in the United States through a strategy focused on interdiction of drug trafficking from Mexico ignores that the business is controlled by US criminal groups within their own country, and distribution is carried out by local criminal groups in various cities, experts conclude and even federal government investigations in Washington.
The current public narrative nurtured by various media, federal authorities, legislators and other politicians is that Mexico is almost exclusively to blame for the more than 70,000 fentanyl overdose deaths, but Mexican cartels are only one part of an illicit fentanyl trade that is controlled, in large part, by Americans in charge of distribution networks in cities and regions, and who keep the vast majority of the profits.
No one doubts that reducing the supply of fentanyl crossing the border from Mexico into the United States could have some impact on the severe problems caused by the substance, but experts conclude that would not be enough to deal with the crisis.
“My research leads me to understand that this (fentanyl) is still a system in transition,” explains Peter Reuter, distinguished professor at the School of Criminology at the University of Maryland, in an interview with La Jornada.
Reuter, a well-known authority who has written extensively on illicit drug markets, warned that much remains unknown about the illicit fentanyl trade.
“What I do know is that for some years, heroin imported from Mexico was distributed in the United States by organizations with close ties to Mexican drug trafficking groups. The Sinaloa Cartel made money from wholesale within the United States and sometimes even approaching the retail market in some cities,” he said in the interview. “With fentanyl, I think there’s more distance; in other words, they (Mexican cartels) sell to the U.S. market from across the border and then they’re no longer involved.”
This analysis appears to have been confirmed by US Attorney General Merrick Garland himself this month when he announced indictments against 28 drug traffickers (including Los Chapitos), almost all linked to the Sinaloa cartel. “The traffickers of that criminal group move fentanyl from Mexico to the United States where it is sold wholesale to other organizations” within this country, he said.
The Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency, reported in 2022 that 86.2 percent of those arrested for illegal fentanyl sales were U.S. citizens.
In his research, Reuter has found that fentanyl trafficking in the United States varies greatly by city. In some cities, local criminal gangs that used to sell heroin are now engaged in the fentanyl trade, while in others they are new traffickers. Moreover, indicating that there are different criminal organizations in this US market, fentanyl has replaced heroin in the country’s east, but much less in the west.
The Commission to Combat Trafficking in Synthetic Opioids, an official federal entity chaired by ultraconservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Democratic Representative David Trone, along with representatives from Congress, the DEA, the Pentagon, the intelligence community and many other federal agencies, concluded in a 2022 report that many of the profits from the sale of fentanyl in the United States do not return to the cartels in Mexico. Rather, it remains in the hands of local U.S. criminal organizations. “The total revenue from the export of fentanyl to the United States is likely between $700 million and $1 billion,” the authors of the commission’s report estimate. To put that in context, the market for all illicit drugs in the United States – including fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and others – is estimated at more than $100 billion a year.
On the other hand, it is very difficult to monitor fentanyl trafficking. The commission calculated that only three to five metric tons of pure fentanyl are required to satisfy illicit opioid use in the United States — an amount that fits in a shipping container. As Reuter notes, the United States imports more than one million metric tons of avocado from Mexico each year, and therefore, the commission “recognized the impossibility of reducing the availability of illegal synthetic opioids through supply-side efforts only.”
Reuter and his colleague, Professor Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie-Mellon University, wrote an article in Scientific American this month concluding: “We need to reconsider enforcement goals in the fentanyl age.” They assess that the current strategy only leaves “compliance with the law to failure.” While there are calls to intensify maximum sentences for fentanyl supply and border control, it is hard to imagine these measures succeeding in reducing supply in the long run.”
Instead, they argue for measures to reduce corruption generated by the drug trade, go after Internet sellers, who often reach inexperienced users, and suppress ” dealers and open-air markets” that are directly responsible for this fentanyl crisis.
The two experts emphasize that: “re-imagining narcotics law enforcement in the fentanyl age should be a collective discussion conducted with open minds and few preconditions.”
Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Friday, May 5, 2023, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2023/05/05/politica/003n1pol and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee
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