Chinese Mafias Smuggle Fentanyl to Latin America

China is the main producer of the drug introduced into other countries as a legal medicine.
Gustavo Arias Retana/Diálogo | 7 June 2019

Transnational Threats

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid manufactured in China, is smuggled into Latin America concealed as a medicine and then sold by Mexican and U.S. drug cartels. (Photo: Chang Zhongzheng, AFP)

The partnership between Chinese mafias and organized crime in Latin America is increasingly evident. Criminal groups smuggle fentanyl via Latin America to the United States, taking advantage of partnerships with main drug cartels and the Chinese government’s complicity.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to morphine and produced at a low cost, especially in China. The drug was introduced into the U.S. black market in 2013. According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is in part responsible for the 47,000 opioid-related deaths in the country in 2017. The drug is used to mitigate pain produced by certain types of cancer, serious injuries, surgery, or chronic illnesses. It’s popular due to its potency, rapid action, and effects that can be 50 times higher than heroin, the Institute indicated.

"This is a great business, because the Chinese produce the drug, and cartels create a direct [link] with producers, and they don't need to transport it, as in the case of cocaine from Andean countries. Traffic is simple because doses are smaller; mafias cut fentanyl with medication to conceal it," said Tania Molina, a Costa Rican criminologist and security specialist who graduated from the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric and Defense Studies. "It’s a great business; one kilogram of this opioid may be worth $2 million in the United States. Criminals cut it with other substances to increase profits."

According to a February 2019 report from the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank, the two largest criminal organizations that control fentanyl traffic in Mexico are the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels. In China, the main trafficker is the Zheng criminal organization, which has mafia links and also ships the opioid by mail.

Mafia expansion

"Chinese mafias have been expanding to other markets for a while now, such as to Latin America with fentanyl, or to Europe with marijuana; they are starting to dominate the market," Alejandro Riera, a Spanish specialist in organized crime and author of the book “The Chinese Mafia: Triads, Secret Societies”, told Diálogo. "It wouldn't be rare for them to do business with Mexican cartels. The Chinese government, on the other hand, is always under the shadow of corruption, which facilitates these movements."

"Once the drug leaves China, the cartels control traffic to the United States," Molina added. "I don't think that China is interested [in stopping them], especially when they could affect the United States."

"The Chinese chemical industry lacks regulation, which facilitates sending fentanyl precursor chemicals to criminal organizations’ clandestine labs," the Wilson Center report indicated. "The lack of surveillance combined with the administrative inefficiencies promotes the proliferation of illegal chemical plants that manufacture large quantities of precursors bound for the United States or via Mexico, where criminal groups adapt [quickly] to the new market."

 

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