Meyer: Mexican cartels fighting to feed US opioid habit
The nine Americans killed in an ambush south of the border last week were caught in the crossfire of rival drug cartels, Mexican authorities say. Which makes these dual citizens, including three mothers and their children, casualties of the opioid crisis, too.
What Mexico’s increasingly powerful transnational criminal organizations are battling over — and the reason gang warfare has reached record heights — is the opportunity to make enormous amounts of money trafficking fentanyl and other synthetic opioids into the United States.
We tend to see the current opioid crisis primarily as the result of lapses in the public health safety net — the outcome of a push by Big Pharma, which created the market for these killer designer drugs in the first place by hooking millions of Americans on prescription pain pills, and the failure of Congress and successive administrations to stop it and provide adequate prevention and treatment programs.
That’s true. But much of the current supply of fentanyl pushing the broader opioid crisis to unprecedented heights is being smuggled into the country by the Sinaloa cartel and its rivals in Mexico.
Black-market fentanyl and other synthetic opioids smuggled in from Mexico and China have become the fastest-growing and most lethal drug in America, far surpassing heroin and the prescription narcotics that often serve as gateway drugs. The surge has been so rapid — from roughly 3,000 deaths in 2013 to more than 30,000 five years later — that synthetic opioid overdoses have now killed more Americans than the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even has a name for it now: the “third wave” of the opioid crisis. CDC data shows that more than 399,000 people have died from overdoses involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids, from 1999 to 2017.
The first distinct wave of opioid deaths began in the 1990s with the steady increase of prescriptions pushed on Americans by Big Pharma and complicit doctors. The second wave began in 2010, the CDC says, when the backlash over such professional drug pushers prompted a sharp curtailment of supply. That forced users onto the streets, where they began buying heroin and similar illicit drugs, including diverted or stolen supplies of pharmaceutical fentanyl — which is prescribed legally, but rarely, as a potent painkiller for surgery and cancer patients.
Mexico’s transnational organized crime collectives, especially Sinaloa — the cartel made infamous by drug overlord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán — were more than happy to supply whatever was needed to meet the voracious U.S. demand. To do so, they cultivated alliances with Italian and other organized crime mafias, American street gangs, outlaw biker groups and high-tech Asian money launderers.
So the third wave of opioids — the one still ravaging U.S. communities — began in 2013 when Americans found out about fentanyl. Some began buying it direct from brokers in China, where the vast majority of the chemical was manufactured. But Sinaloa, which by then operated in more than 50 countries, and its rivals soon homed in on the drug, too, and began buying vast quantities of it for resale in the United States.
The cartels quickly realized that they could make previously unimaginable profits, with much less risk, from a drug that can be cooked up in a few days in clandestine labs, and in unlimited quantities, than from heroin, which required a time-consuming and expensive process of cultivating and processing poppy plants.