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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, September 1, 2022

How Two Mexican Drug Cartels Came To Dominate America’s Fentanyl Supply

“Mica” for Borderland Beat 

How Two Mexican Drug Cartels Came to Dominate America’s 
Fentanyl Supply
The Sinaloa and Jalisco organizations are a dominant source of the synthetic opioid, a leading cause of the U.S.’s record overdoses

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 crisisthat claimed more than 108,000 lives in the U.S. last year, a record.

“If it were an athlete, people would call it ‘The G.O.A.T.,’ ” said Jim Crotty, who served as deputy chief of staff at the Drug Enforcement Administration from 2019 to 2021. “It is in fact the most pernicious, the most devastating drug that we have ever seen.”

Fentanyl made by Mexican drug cartels in inexpensive labs, such as the one above, is flooding the U.S.

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 cook said he makes up to $2,500 a week running his one-man lab, where he dons a hazmat suit, dark glasses and a black cloth mask. If he gets queasy, he said, he drinks milk. Jugs line the roughly 10-by-10 foot lab, including one containing a clear liquid marked “Pure Acetone.” Others are marked “Fentanyl XXX,” and “Chinese Chemical.”

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.

Fentanyl production is simpler than heroin, because it is entirely synthetic and doesn’t require cultivating the poppies needed for heroin. Busts of Mexican labs or large seizures at the border can be quickly offset by new batches without having to wait to harvest crops or pay farmers.

It is also less expensive to make. The plant-based opium needed to produce a kilogram of heroin can cost producers about $6,000, while the precursor chemicals to make a kilogram of fentanyl cost $200 or less, according to Bryce Pardo, associate director of the Rand Corp.’s Drug Policy Research Center, who helped lead a recent bipartisan report on synthetic opioids.

“Synthetic opioids offer economic and tactical advantages that allow criminals to vastly outpace enforcement efforts,” the report said. Illegal drug exports to the U.S. from Mexico are worth tens of billions of dollars annually, it estimates, with fentanyl a growing share of the business.

Heroin’s profile has been shrinking as fentanyl becomes more available. Some Mexican poppy farmers in the mountains of Sinaloa say they have lost income as cartels shift away from heroin, and have abandoned their fields.

A statue of Jesus looms over Culiacan, which is dominated in many other respects by the Sinaloa cartel.

‘Principal product’

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. The downtown includes a shrine to Jesús Malverde, a bandit whom many of Sinaloa’s drug traffickers have adopted as a popular saint. A cemetery housing air-conditioned tombs three stories tall is a hallowed resting place for prominent drug lords, and their not-so prominent hit men, some of whose plots are bought in bulk by their bosses.

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.

Jardines del Humaya, a cemetery where many Sinaloa cartel members are buried in opulent mausoleums.

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.

Marketing savvy

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.

 A man burns a fentanyl pill to check its quality.

Fentanyl pills, which are often disguised as legitimate opioids.

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.”

A clandestine laboratory in Sinaloa. The cartels “don’t just fill a void, they create a market.”

Common chemicals

Fentanyl market dynamics have proven hard to disrupt. One problem is that many of the precursor chemicals made in China are also used in legitimate pharmaceuticals. Even when some are controlled, fentanyl makers can pick different inputs among an array of available chemicals, the recent U.S. bipartisan report said.

Take the chemical 4-piperidone, which is a common fentanyl component that is also used for legitimate pharmaceutical research.

Some 160,000 companies in China produce chemicals used in drug assembly in batches as small as tens of metric tons, the State Department estimated in early 2021, although estimates vary widely.

Rahul Gupta, director of the Biden White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the U.S. is asking China to enforce proper labeling of chemical shipments and to agree on which regulated chemicals can be used to make fentanyl so they can be tracked.

A 2021 report from two researchers at the Institute of Criminal Investigation of People’s Public Security University of China, the country’s highest police academy, pointed to weak training and unclear lines of command within China’s drug enforcement divisions. The researchers said those inspecting chemical plants often don’t have the means or know-how to identify fentanyl precursor chemicals.

The U.S. wants China to apply what are known as “know your customer procedures” to chemical makers so that manufacturers are accountable for where their products go, Dr. Gupta said.

China disputes the U.S. characterization of China’s role in the illicit fentanyl supply chain. A statement from the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., touted China’s efforts to control drug precursors and said it was untrue that these chemicals undergird the U.S. fentanyl problem. “The U.S. has itself to blame for the root cause of fentanyl abuse in the country,” it said.

A stiffer Chinese crackdown on precursors might not disrupt the market or slow the cartels because they could buy chemicals from other countries, including India. “There’s lots of places these same chemicals can come from,” said Rep. David Trone (D., Md.), who co-chairs a federal commission on synthetic opioid trafficking, which is behind this year’s bipartisan report, during a recent conference.

Chemicals used to make fentanyl, pictured at a Sinaloa safe house, often come from China, and can have other, legitimate purposes, which makes them hard to interdict.

A batch of fentanyl, which would later be dried in the sun and packed as kilograms of powder.

To try to stop fentanyl precursors from entering Mexico from Asia, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador put the country’s ports and its largest airport in Mexico City under the control of the Mexican navy.

The navy said in June it had seized around 320 tons of illicit-drug chemicals in the past six months. Mexican authorities have also destroyed about 1,000 labs, 90% of them in Sinaloa producing synthetic drugs, mostly methamphetamine, in the 3½ years since Mr. López Obrador took office, a senior Mexican navy officer said.

Since 2017, Mexico has dismantled some 22 fentanyl production sites, said Oscar Santiago Quintos, head of the criminal intelligence agency of the attorney general’s office. In a bust in July, Mexican soldiers captured 543 kilos of what they said was fentanyl, the single largest seizure in Mexican history.

U.S. seizures last year included 20.4 million fake pills, according to the DEA. Fentanyl and other drugs are often ferried across the southern border hidden in secret compartments of vehicles.

U.S. officials and analysts in both countries have criticized Mr. López Obrador for failing to curb the cartels’ growing power. The Mexican president has said he is focused on what he calls the economic roots of Mexico’s lawlessness and violence, rather than dismantling the cartels.

Cross-border cooperation over security matters has been strained since U.S. agents arrested a former Mexican defense minister on drug conspiracy charges in 2020. The U.S. dropped charges after Mexico threatened to curtail cooperation. Mexico passed legislation that U.S. officials said made it harder to work with their Mexican counterparts.

The Sinaloa cartel was forged from close-knit families in the mountains near Culiacán, who for generations grew marijuana and the opium poppies that provided the base for heroin. Alliances with Colombian cartels in the 1980s ramped up Sinaloa’s control of the flow of cocaine on routes to the U.S. In Culiacán, the cartel runs what amounts to a shadow government in a company town.

The fentanyl cook started with the cartel as a 14-year-old lookout. He measured by eye while cooking the fentanyl, holding two fingers against a bottle marked “chlorine” before pouring some into the oil-barrel mix. “We have our own formula,” he said. His efforts yielded a grayish-white, dough-like paste, which would be dried in the sun and packed as kilograms of powder for shipment across the border.

As he worked, an associate whispered that a car was coming to pick up cargo from the next room. Wrapped in plastic, the 16 kilograms, which represent about three days work, were marked with different codes—X30, Coco, PO8—identifying buyers. Each kilo could potentially yield tens of thousands of doses. “They are leaving tonight for the U.S.,” he said.

Bricks of fentanyl waiting to be picked up. Each kilo could potentially yield tens of thousands of doses.


  1. Obrador is having the Marina's go make drug lab busts on Sinaloa cartel. But have not heard a bust of CJNG labs not even one. Talk about the best one that pays good Bribes.

    1. Talk about cartel favoritism, it goes we used to like Sinaloa's bribes, but now they love CJNG bribes, that CJNG is let to be expanding to more States, so far they are in 28 with no end in site.

    2. The pics of the busted labs they show are ratchet as fuck….. they do not look like anything that would produce the shit they claim. Even by clandestine chemistry standards. Just leave some rusted tubs and barrels with some chemicals somewhere and call it a lab.

    3. CJNG simply just produces much less

    4. Its not rocket sience, the gringos are pressuring Amlo Bebe to stop the trafficking of the deadliest drug right now, "Fent" and who is producing that shitty drug? And while looking for those labs sometimes they find the meth labs also, who ever is dealing Fent is making them selfs a big target

    5. I think that Sinaloa operators have become so careless with lab operational security because like loads, if they mitigate risk by diversifying from 1 to 10 labs, one labs bust is a cost of doing biz while the other 10 produce and avoid detection during the production.

    6. Admiral Ahuir and marinas are just staging up a show to keep militarizing and taking over everything, let's remember that Renato Sales Heredia took over from Monte Rubido to make the mentira histórica of Ayotzinapa more credible, Wilson Center involvement presages a lot of things, none of them good...

  2. I thought cjng don’t sell fent ?

    1. Well thanks to reading this BB article, now you know. As much as they want you to think Mencho is alive, we he is actually dead, they also want us to think CJNG does not sell fentanyl.

    2. Why would CJNG not make and sell fentanyl? The origin of the cartel is based on synthetic drugs from Mr. Ice himself, Nacho Coronel.

    3. Who the hell told you that? This has been fairly known for a minute now.

    4. 8:38 slow as fuck

    5. 8:38 As much as they want you to believe its ok to snitch on your partners, its not ok, get caught do time

  3. With all the resources they have, I’m surprised a major Cartel hasn’t made actual Oxycodone pills(not Fetty).

    1. Exactly. It must be purely economic, but I still can’t believe that they don’t produce at least SOME legitimate oxy or normal amphetamine if they have the means to chemically produce drugs. They’re missing out on a HUGE chunk of the market by not getting into normal/standard opioids and amphetamines. I could probably count on my hand the number of people willing to do meth or fentanyl or heroin laced fentanyl. But the amount I know of people who would do Adderall and oxy or even just clean heroin is a lot more.

    2. 12:32 We’re about to a meaningful extent

  4. The cartels are Chairman XI foot soldiers in China's asymmetrical drug war against America. It learned that lesson very well from the British flooding China with opium and causing mass addiction!

  5. Thanks chapitos for making my city into a zombie shit hole

    1. Blame U.S. government policies as well. They gave the cartel a total monopoly starting between 2014 and 2019. Blame the ones who cut off supply to normal opioids. The American government can obviously stop this at any time, practically overnight.

    2. Yes 217 everything wrong in.the entire world is the fault of US. Ok we get it, you have an I'm a loser victim blame the man mentality. Now go home and get your shinebox!

    3. 2:26 Uh no. I almost never blame America for shit but the war on drugs and cutting off the supply of oxy is clearly the United States shooting itself in the foot. It’s not really “victim vs the man” when we’re all American and therefore all the victims, government official or not. Thanks for killing our cities American government. Now because of you my city is now the country’s epicenter of fent trafficking. Can you guess where?

      Either way the person most at blame would be whoever made oxycodone disappear from the streets. Get a clue.

    4. 2:26 Let’s also not forget what happened to Billy Batts right after he said that mister unoriginal movie referencer.

    5. 2:26 not everything, but what happens in the USA well of course its their fault, just like what happens in mexico its mexicos fault

    6. 3:11

      Back in the late 80s or early 90s a DEA chemist/agent named Donald A. Cooper presented a seminar to various regional DEA departments titled “The Future Synthetic Drugs of Abuse”, you can google that to read a transcript of the presentation he would give.

      In his presentation he broke down major categories of drugs such as “stimulants” and “opioids” and provided predictions for which synthetic drugs would show up in the market in the coming years. For opiates he predicted the rise of fentanyl and structural analogs due to their relative ease of manufacture, enormous potency, high profitability, and ease of smuggling something that can be cut hundreds of times over before end use.

      The DEA knew this day would come eventually, however what catalyzed its birth was the very war on drugs, by cracking down on traditional drugs the cartels innovated to stay ahead. Donald A. Cooper knew this would happen, and he knew the DEAs very own war on drugs would catalyze his predictions into existence.

    7. 2:26 nobody blames the whole US and their dog for shit, but there is a lot of evil americans doing wrong all over the world under guise of "US business" but it is all a lie to line their bottomless pockets and they are all entitled to complicity and cover-up...

  6. “ ‘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.’ ”

    These cartel henchmen literally have no idea what they’re talking about or how the consumer market actually works which is both sad and hilariously ironic.

    1. To 336. I feel that choosing fentanyl was a stupid move. I would have gone for the pre cursors to morphine and made a less killer pill. Better quality ( meaning not a pill that looks crappy or not well made ). Putting a little more investment into it. To get something that was not going to come into the spotlight as far as killing people. I say this because I had a compound lab we dabbled in making pills for use as steroids, etc. I just feel that someone spoke and brought up fentanyl and they o ly saw one part of the process. Not thinking how many people were going to die ( you can't kill the costumers that are making you the money). That seems like such a bad business plan. But now they can't or won't turn back. So just gotta see how or where things will play out.

    2. 12:01 not true sailor

    3. 10:05 What’s not true?

    4. 11:01 Yeah, well not exactly precursors but chemical analogues to morphine would be much better yes. Heroin and codeine just convert into morphine within the body after all. Fent is unnatural af metabolically and otherwise.

  7. Fent popped up around 2013... when hadji Baschoo got grabbed. He controlled 90%of all the H around the world. He got triple life ... he's getting out next year on a technicality... I wonder why? They need someone that can control the H market. Not fent killing off the users . Watch the chemicals for Fent get stopped just like ephedrine in 2011

    1. 2:08 We’ll fent may have been around somewhat in 2013 but it really wasn’t until around 2016/2017 that it started to become ubiquitous on the streets and a household name. 2014 actually had plenty of pure heroin around without any fentanyl in it because that’s when heroin started really popping up in the suburbs across America; the second wave of the opioid epidemic. Fentanyl’s impact didn’t come until several years later. Now the 2020s have fully become the decade of fentanyl and heroin is basically all but dead. Even meth trafficking is ever so slightly dropping. Smuggling of fentanyl, cocaine and illegal immigrants are the only things that’s actually increasing right now.


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