How to Save America from the Fentanyl Flow

March 17, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: FentanylDrugsChinaXi JinpingMexico

How to Save America from the Fentanyl Flow

Washington needs to double down on its cooperation efforts with Beijing, Mexico City and Ottawa, bilaterally and through a new four-way framework against this deadly commerce.


As the United States debates “emergencies” at its southern border and negotiates a trade deal with China, U.S. leaders must confront the lethal trade in fentanyl from other North American countries and China and the opioid epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans each year.

We need to double down on assuring effective cooperation with China, Mexico and Canada, bilaterally and through a new four-way framework against this deadly commerce.


China is a major source of the illicit synthetic fentanyl—plus its analogs and precursor chemicals—that makes its way to North America. Significant quantities flow from China through Mexico and Canada, and some of it arrives directly in the United States. Most fentanyl (as well as other synthetics and opioids) is smuggled through legal points of entry and via international mail carriers.

The United States has regularly engaged the Chinese government on these illegal drug flows. In late 2018, President Donald Trump voiced his assessment that Chinese president Xi Jinping is committed to help stem the flows of illicit fentanyl and dangerous chemical precursors by cracking down on criminal clandestine labs and shippers and regulating these pharmaceuticals as “controlled substances.”

Mexico and the United States agreed on a plan to go after the entire chain of drug smuggling to the United States in 2017, which includes fentanyl, heroin and other illegal drugs. U.S. rhetoric about the U.S.-Mexico border and politics have hampered progress, however. Canada and the United States work well bilaterally, and the three North American countries hold drug policy talks annually to address the threat to all three societies.

China’s high-level commitment to crack down on illegal drug commerce amid ongoing trade talks is important. It must be solidified as part of a U.S.-China understanding, particularly given the addictions and deaths that illegal drug trade is driving. The real measure of President Xi’s political will is enforcement that reduces the volume of illicit fentanyl and other synthetic drugs flowing to the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Similarly, effective U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation that disrupts drug trafficking is essential to address real American and Mexican “crises” that involve the shared border: the drugs that feed U.S. demand and the illegal profits that arm and fuel violence and corruption in Mexico.

Fentanyl is fifty to one hundred times more potent than morphine. It is used as an anesthetic in surgeries and prescribed to reduce chronic pain for an array of illnesses, such as cancer. The vast over-prescribing of opioids and other serious abuses in the U.S. medical system helped fuel the addiction crisis, but increasingly the fentanyl-related harm and death in the United States come from fentanyl produced and distributed by criminals. It is sold on streets across the United States, often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine to increase its potency and euphoric effects of the drugs and increasing criminals’ profits.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths involving non-methadone synthetic opioids including fentanyl increased almost 47 percent from 2016 to 2017. CDC estimated that about 29,400 people died from overdoses involving fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, and opioids account for more than two-thirds of deaths from drug overdoses in the United States in 2017.

China did not create the insatiable U.S. appetite for addictive opioids. However, in November 2018, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that there had been no substantive curtailment of fentanyl flows from China to the United States due to weak regulations governing pharmaceutical and chemical sectors in China. Numerous reports cite the booming imports of synthetic opioids from China into Mexico as well as the increased smuggling from Mexico into the United States.

In China, webs of corruption and criminality have limited the ability of law enforcement agencies to disrupt the manufacturing, distribution, and trafficking of illicit drugs including fentanyl and chemical precursors into North America.

Mexico has been grappling for years with similar challenges, seeking to counter the criminal networks that make tens of billions of dollars a year supplying U.S. users. In recent years, those criminals first expanded opium production in Mexico and now focus on supplying synthetic opioids, as well as methamphetamines, to feed the U.S. market.

Of increasing concern is the use of international and U.S. mail and express couriers to ship fentanyl or fentanyl analogs with complete pill presses and bindings agents to criminal groups in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Containers are mislabeled, and packets hidden to avoid detection at legal ports of entry. Selling fentanyl online via the open internet in China and the “dark” web in the United States has also become prevalent and of is a significant concern.

Fentanyl and its hybrids are very profitable for criminals. For about $32,000, a kilogram of fentanyl can be converted into some one million pills that have a street value of several million U.S. dollars. It is highly addictive.

Solutions need to be multifaceted, including anti-addiction and recovery programs, as President Trump’s January 2019 drug strategy notes.

A wall along the U.S. Southwest border will not be a barrier to the smuggling of these deadly opioids, however. Evidence-based reports and public prosecutions, including the recent Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman trial, show that most drugs are smuggled into the United States through legal ports of entry or tunnels. In late January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Arizona made the largest-ever seizure of fentanyl: it could have provided one hundred million doses.

The deployment of state-of-the-art fixed and hand-held sensors on both sides of the U.S. and-Mexico border ports of entry could have a big impact in detecting drugs headed northward in vehicles or with pedestrians as well as guns and bulk cash heading to Mexico. The United States should aggressively fund and deploy this sensor technology through the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State’s Merida program, which can strengthen the Mexican side of the border.

Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his ministers need to prioritize working with the United States to disrupt these vicious illicit smuggling networks, even as they seek to reduce the historic levels of criminal homicides harming Mexican society. The drug trade is fueling greater insecurity in Mexico: disrupting drug flows and seizing the profits are key parts of the solution for Mexico’s criminal violence.

Regarding China, the Trump administration must test Chinese leaders to see if they have the political will to stop the flows of fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and precursors to North America as part of a broader trade deal. There should be strong commitments measured by enforcement results.

Such cooperation could include the establishment of a Quadrilateral Commission against Illicit Opioids and International Organized Crime (Q-IOC2) among the United States, China, Mexico and Canada. The Quadrilateral Commission would regularly review results of enhanced law enforcement and justice cooperation and of targeting and detecting dangerous synthetic drugs at ports of entry in North America and at other vulnerable entry points along the northern and southern U.S. borders. This diplomatic and security mechanism could identify areas for improvement and actions that have yielded success. Additionally, this confidence-building process would reinforce each country’s homeland security.

To successfully reduce drug smuggling, the United States must find a more effective way to leverage sanctions and asset seizure. Breaking the corruptive influence of these massive illicit enterprises by seizing the property and financial assets of traffickers and their associates must be a priority for all four countries. A successful Quadrilateral process can help spur innovative dissuasive sanctions and enforcement approaches to mobilize collective action against the booming trafficking networks behinds today’s drug “emergencies” and other convergence crime in North America.

Progress requires a balanced approach including demand reduction: better prevention, treatment, recovery and rehabilitative services for drug users. To succeed, we must regularly test the political will of our country—and of our North American neighbors and China—to disrupt trafficking networks and put the people who participate in them behind bars.

Earl Anthony Wayne is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau for Economic and Business Affairs, among other positions.

David M. Luna is CEO, Luna Global Networks & Convergence Strategies LLC, Senior Fellow for National Security at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center at George Mason University, and Former Senior Director for National Security & Diplomacy in the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

Image: Reuters