CULIACÁN, Mexico—At a half-built house in a barrio, a longtime Sinaloa cartel employee used a shovel to mix chemicals in a simmering oil barrel.
His concoction was an illegal form of fentanyl, which Mexican criminal organizations are churning out at high volume in laboratories and smuggling across the border. In a six-day workweek, the cook said, he can make enough fentanyl for hundreds of thousands of doses.
With business savvy and growing power in Mexico, the Sinaloa and rival Jalisco cartels dominate the market for supplying fentanyl to the U.S. They cornered the market after China cracked down on fentanyl production several years ago and are now churning out bootleg versions of the highly potent synthetic opioid that, in its legal form, is used under prescription to treat severe pain.
Fentanyl’s inexpensive, easy-to-replicate formula has boosted its appeal to criminal networks. It is also fueling an overdose crisis that claimed more than 108,000 lives in the U.S. last year, a record.
Like a factory worker at a multinational corporation, the 25-year-old fentanyl cook is part of a globe-spanning production line manufacturing the cartels’ highly profitable export. These crude labs—it is unknown how many there are—can be set up inexpensively and quickly, torn down and moved or abandoned to evade security forces.
The two cartels are named for their respective strongholds in states on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Sinaloa is a decades-old criminal organization deeply embedded in the economy, politics and culture of Mexico’s wild northwest, analysts and officials said. Jalisco, farther south, is a relative upstart, and has violently challenged Sinaloa for market share.
The Sinaloa cartel is the market leader, said Renato Sales, Mexico’s former security chief. U.S. and Mexican officials likened it to how a company works, manufacturing and marketing an array of illegal drugs and cultivating links to suppliers in dozens of countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia. The cartel is believed to have different units handling jobs such as security, money laundering, transportation, production and the bribing of public officials.
The cartel dominates the economy and life of Culiacán, a semitropical city of luxury cars, gated neighborhoods and barrios.
At the city’s airport gift shop, visitors can buy baseball caps emblazoned with the number 701, a reference to the ranking in the 2009 Forbes list of richest people of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the drug lord and Sinaloa native son serving a life sentence in a supermax prison in Colorado.
The U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego in June said 26 people were indicted following a two-year investigation into what law-enforcement officials described as a sprawling operation extending from Sinaloa. Drugs seized included methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and nearly 500,000 fake pills laced with fentanyl, investigators said. The DEA identified alleged couriers, stash-house managers and people who smuggled proceeds back to Mexico.
A separate DEA operation in 2020 led to the arrest of more than 600 alleged Jalisco cartel members in the U.S. That cartel is Mexico’s fastest-growing and most violent. It is fighting with Sinaloa for control of seaports where fentanyl’s chemical ingredients arrive from China as well as routes through the country and border crossings into the U.S.
Illegal fentanyl production has flared in the past. A 2005 fentanyl surge in parts of the U.S., including the Midwest, led authorities to a single illegal lab in the city of Toluca, near Mexico City. Shutting it down helped stem the problem for a time.
Fentanyl metastasized into a broader crisis in the 2010s, as drugs flowed from China, sometimes through Mexico, and the cartels ramped up their own production. The eastern half of the U.S. was particularly hard-hit as powdered fentanyl was mixed into the heroin supply, sometimes catching users off guard and leading to an increase in fatal overdoses.
In May 2019, under pressure from the U.S., China put fentanyl-related drugs under a controlled regulatory regime. The next year, seizures of fentanyl from China in the U.S. dropped sharply, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
“As we all know, China is not a democracy,” said Jim Carroll, U.S. drug czar under former President Donald Trump. “They can take very quick adverse action against these producers.” Chinese chemical manufacturers continue to sell the ingredients for fentanyl, many of which have a range of legitimate uses.
Mexican cartels were primed to take advantage. They already had established trafficking networks built around drugs like cocaine, marijuana and heroin, said Uttam Dhillon, who served as acting DEA administrator under Mr. Trump. And they had relationships with Chinese chemical makers, and expertise running drugmaking labs, through their production of methamphetamine, another synthetic drug they are sending to the U.S., Mr. Dhillon said.
The DEA said the cartels are pushing their synthetic wares into more parts of the U.S. Methamphetamine is more present in some eastern states where that drug was once rare. And fentanyl is growing in the West. Its potency and the lack of quality control in the black market make it easy to cause overdoses—including when users don’t know that fentanyl is laced into or simply sold as other drugs.
The drug often arrives in the form of fake tablets made to look like prescription drugs, including pain pills, law-enforcement authorities said. The DEA believes these dupes—often stamped to look like real 30 milligram oxycodone pills—are aimed at driving prescription drug users toward an illicit, cartel-made product.
The cartels “don’t just fill a void, they create a market,” Mr. Dhillon said.
The pills are so ubiquitous that they have been falling in price, creating pressure on the cartels to roll out new products, according to a 27-year-old fentanyl producer who runs a clandestine lab in Culiacán. He said he and a partner are experimenting with a new version meant to be 30% more potent than the typical fake oxycodone tablets, known as M30s.
The new pills, colored pink, yellow and green, have the shape of a skull, an iconic Mexican folkloric image, and don’t try to mimic real medication. They are also made with butter flavoring so that, when melted on foil with a flame, the pills leave a golden trail and smell like caramel popcorn, telltale signs of quality, said the producer.
He said he has made as many as one million pills in a week. Another worker in his lab had to periodically stop one of their machines—a $4,000, Chinese-made pill press—to clear jams as it ran on a recent, humid day.
“The M30 is not working very well. Everybody is making them,” the producer said. The new pill, he said, “will generate a lot of demand.”
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