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Fentanyl Production Leaves Sinaloa


Last fall, news outlets reported that Mexico’s most powerful cartel was ceasing fentanyl production in its territory.

The Wall Street Journal’s story, “Mexican Sinaloa Cartel’s Message to Members: Stop Making Fentanyl or Die,” described threatening banners hung in public places shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador about the fentanyl crisis.

[A]bout a dozen banners ordering the fentanyl ban were hung from overpasses, billboards and construction sites in Culiacán. “In Sinaloa, the sale, manufacture, transport or any kind of business involving the substance known as fentanyl, including the sale of chemical products for its elaboration, is permanently banned,” the banners read. “You have been warned. Sincerely yours, the Chapitos.”

The Chapitos, a powerful intra-cartel group led by the sons of El Chapo, apparently weren’t hesitating to kill those who violated the ban.

Yet when I first heard this, I didn’t believe it. It seemed incredibly improbable that the cartel would step away from distributing fentanyl, its most lucrative and versatile drug. U.S. officials were similarly skeptical, calling the move a public relations stunt.

Now, about four months after the banners began flying, the truth of the matter is coming into focus. It’s more complicated than we originally thought.

  1. The cartel is indeed moving its fentanyl production out of Sinaloa.

  2. But they’re not in any way ceasing fentanyl production. They’re simply moving their laboratories to more strategic locations.

That’s the analysis of Luis Chaparro, author of the Saga newsletter, and perhaps the best-informed journalist writing about the cartels today.

“They started moving their kitchens out of the state, but not really stopping from trafficking fentanyl,” he told me. “For the most part they moved their kitchens to Chihuahua, Puebla, Durango, and Nuevo Leon.”

Chaparro adds that he recently interviewed a Chapitos contractor who said the cartel is moving many fentanyl pill pressing operations to Canada, because, “it's easier to reach the U.S. northern states from there than all the way from Sinaloa.”

These decisions, Chaparro adds, are not about public relations, but about appeasing the powerful men working in concert with cartel bosses — Mexican military generals.

“[Cartel bosses] wanted to lose the heat, because they work hand in hand with Mexican authorities, like the Mexican army,” he says.

With GOP presidential candidates threatening to send U.S. military into Mexico to fight the scourge, Sinaloa’s top general demanded action, Chaparro continues. “He made an agreement with Los Chapitos to move all of their production out of state, and promised he wouldn't really go after them. Then, he could tell his bosses, ‘Well, we couldn't really find any [labs].’”

Now, Chaparro adds, the cartel’s fentanyl infrastructure in Sinaloa is being dismantled.

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It goes without saying, of course, that this does not mean less fentanyl will find its way into the United States. In fact, perhaps we will see more.

My take? Well, it’s the same as always. We can spend as much time as we want negotiating with presidents and forming working groups and setting up border security, and spend billions in the process, but it adds up to nothing.

The drugs will always find a way. Instead, we need a renewed focus on helping our own people, educating them about the dangers of drugs like fentanyl, and providing Medication Assisted Treatment, housing, psychiatric care, and job opportunities to those who are already addicted.

We’ve got the money to do so, we just need the will.

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