This blog is the 2023 winner of the Bill Tupman Prize, submitted in partnership with the ECPR-SGOG Summer School.
Since 2013, the synthetic opioid crisis has cast a long and tragic shadow over the United States (US), causing over 70,601 overdose deaths in 2022. The rapid and unrelenting spread of fentanyl across North America, driven by its high potency and market advantage over its counterparts derived from the opium poppy, has given rise to significant concerns in Europe.
Fentanyl’s Grip in North America
The origins of the fentanyl crisis in the US can be traced to complex factors involving illicit drug production, distribution networks and the versatility of the manufacturing process of synthetic opioids. Fentanyl, originating in 1959, was initially developed as an intravenous anaesthetic for chronic pain management. The drug was first used clinically in Europe in 1963 and in the US in 1968. Since its creation, fentanyl and its main precursors, 4-anilino-N-phenethylpiperidine (ANPP) and 4-anilinopiperidine (4-AP), have been subjected to stringent control and regulation in the US. However, other countries, including China, had and have maintained relatively lax regulations concerning fentanyl and its precursors – inadvertently facilitating the influx of fentanyl into the US illegal market, often with the participation of pharmaceutical companies. From 2014 to 2019, China remained the primary source of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that were illicitly trafficked into the US through international mail and express consignment operations.
Following the international pressure exerted on President Xi, on May 1, 2019, China began enforcing stricter regulations in fentanyl manufacturing companies and intensified control over the export and online advertising of fentanyl. The increase in oversight of precursor chemicals utilized in fentanyl production prompted pharmaceutical companies to develop “masked” precursors. These were intentionally designed to disguise their connection to US-restricted, or ‘scheduled’, substances, while still being easily converted into regulated precursors. These substitutes were advertised and sold on licit online markets where several journalists note 4-AP masked precursors were openly advertised on websites like Pinterest as “cas 99918-43-1”. The development of masked, unregulated fentanyl precursors exemplifies the versatility of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. By utilizing masked precursors, fentanyl can effectively conceal illicit chemical production and evade regulatory controls.
Some of these masked precursors were targeted to Mexican markets which provided indications that Mexican Cartels were purchasing precursors from Chinese companies for the manufacture of methamphetamine, fentanyl analogues and its derivatives. In 2019, the Agencia de Investigación Criminal (AIC) in Mexico identified and traced 13 trafficking routes associated with fentanyl-mixed drugs. Most of the powdered fentanyl pills, and fentanyl precursors are entering Mexico via the ports of Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas. These routes were primarily linked to the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación and the Cartel de Sinaloa, which appear to be the leaders in processing, storing, and shipping fentanyl.
The allure of a highly lucrative fentanyl trade, accompanied by the transportation advantages it offers, along with the exceptional potency and versatility of fentanyl in its synthesis, provided strong incentives for Mexican cartels to expand and intensify their engagement in the illicit trafficking of fentanyl. As per the US Department of Justice, cartels can acquire one kilogram of fentanyl for approximately $32,000 USD, from which they can produce over a million counterfeit pills worth above $20 million. Leaked documents from the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) revealed the Sinaloa Cartel’s recruitment of chemists and cooks to help manufacture fentanyl and methamphetamine. Today, the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG strive to achieve the same level of purity and potency in fentanyl production as they have accomplished with methamphetamine.
Europe’s Fentanyl Landscape
While fentanyl-related deaths in Europe are not as prevalent as in the US, there is a growing concern over the use of synthetic opioids among users in Europe. While synthetic opioid use remains a persistent problem in Estonia, the United Kingdom and Germany, the emergence of illicitly manufactured fentanyl has been identified as a grave menace to public health by researchers in Europe. In particular, Estonia stands out as having an endemic problem of synthetic drug use. Yet, in other European countries, fentanyl remains a substance with low overall usage but significant risks. For instance, in the UK and Germany, fentanyl seems to be a geographically localized issue, as only specific regions feature relatively high concentration of its use.
While the argument regarding fentanyl’s high purity and potency, which is 50 times stronger than heroin, may indeed be tempting to drug users, the situation in the US reveals that the transition from heroin to fentanyl is not solely driven by the drug’s purity and potency. The widespread use of fentanyl in the US is attributed to drug trafficking organisations, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG, which have noted the lucrative advantages that fentanyl offers. In fact, a study conducted by NYU revealed that only 18% of people who inject fentanyl in NYC actually had the intention to use it.
Some concerns have arisen regarding a potential shift from heroin to fentanyl, particularly in light of the announced Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation. According to the UNODC, Afghanistan is the world’s primary supplier of illegal opium. This is not the first time a ban on opium is imposed in Afghanistan. The Taliban implemented a ban on its cultivation during the 2000-2001 growing season which caused a 95% decline in production. Approximately eighteen months after the implementation of the ban, Europe faced a significant shortage of heroin, leading to a surge in prices and the dilution of its purity. This posed heightened risks for individuals grappling with drug addiction, as the variability in potency increased the likelihood of overdoses. One year following the declaration of the 2022 ban, the UNODC released its report on illicit opium production in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, the findings indicate a 32% increase in opium poppy cultivation compared to the previous year, contradicting the Taliban’s pledge to halt poppy cultivation. However, it is important to note that these results may not reflect the impact of the ban, as opium poppy cultivation requires more than 18 months to yield harvestable crops.
If the Taliban effectively implements the ban on opium harvests, replicating the significant decline in heroin production observed in 2001, it could result in a scarcity of heroin in the European market. There is, therefore, a possibility that some heroin consumers may turn to fentanyl as an alternative. However, it is important to note that the extent of this shift will not solely depend on the Taliban’s ban on opium plant cultivation. The activities of fentanyl synthesizers and distributors, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco’s New Generation, will play a significant role in determining the penetration of fentanyl into European markets. Their presence and proliferation in the European drug trade will ultimately influence the availability and accessibility of fentanyl as a substitute for heroin.
Concerningly, Europe is not exempt from the illicit operations of Mexican cartels. According to a collaborative report by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and EUROPOL, cartels engage in partnerships with criminal networks based in the European Union to facilitate the trafficking of methamphetamine and cocaine through EU ports. The report highlights cases such as the confiscation of 3.5 tons of methamphetamine in Spain in 2021 and the seizure of 1.9 tons of methamphetamine in Rotterdam in 2019.
While the impact of fentanyl trafficking in Europe may not be as severe as in the US, given the robust public health institutions in Europe, it is still crucial for law enforcement agencies to remain vigilant and actively monitor the activities of fentanyl synthesizers and distributors – specifically from Mexican cartels – in the region.
Carolina Tellez is currently completing the International Master in Intelligence, Security, and Strategic Studies, an Erasmus Mundus joint program at The University of Glasgow, Trento University and Charles University. Her current research interests include cybercrime and organised drug trafficking.
Main image Credit: Fentanyl Lethal Dosage via WikiCommons.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI, ECPR, Focused Conservation, or any other institution.