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‘Cartels are scrambling’: Coronavirus snarls global drug trade

Federal authorities seized narcotics in this newly discovered tunnel connecting a warehouse in Tijuana with south San Diego. The stash was notable for its low amount of the opioid fentanyl.
(U.S. Border Patrol via AP)

The coronavirus is dealing a gut punch to the illegal drug trade, authorities say, paralyzing economies, closing borders and severing supply chains in China that traffickers rely on for the chemicals to make such profitable drugs as methamphetamine and the powerful opioid fentanyl.

One of the main suppliers that shut down is in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the global outbreak.

Interviews with nearly two dozen law enforcement officials and trafficking experts found that Mexican and Colombian cartels are still plying their trade, as evidenced by a bust last month in which nearly $30 million worth of street drugs was seized in a new smuggling tunnel connecting a warehouse in Tijuana to southern San Diego. But the stay-home orders that have turned cities into ghost towns are disrupting steps including production, transport and sales.

Along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, through which the vast majority of illegal drugs cross, the normally bustling vehicle traffic that smugglers use for cover has slowed to a trickle. Bars, nightclubs and motels across the country that are ordinarily fertile marketplaces for drug dealers have shuttered. And prices for drugs in short supply have soared to gouging levels.

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“They are facing a supply problem and a demand problem,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former official with CISEN, the Mexican intelligence agency. “Once you get them to the market, who are you going to sell to?”

The synthetic drug is the leading culprit in the U.S. opioid epidemic. Most comes from Mexico, where traffickers have embraced it over heroin.

But the COVID-19 pandemic also has limited law enforcement’s effectiveness, as departments cope with drug investigators working remotely, falling ill and navigating a new landscape in which their own activities have become more conspicuous. In Los Angeles County, half of the narcotics detectives have been put on patrol duty, potentially imperiling long-term investigations.

For sellers, virtually every illicit drug has been affected, with supply-chain disruptions at both the wholesale and retail level. Traffickers are stockpiling narcotics and cash along the border, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration even reports a decrease in money-laundering and online drug sales on the so-called dark web.

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“The godfathers of the cartels are scrambling,” said Phil Jordan, a former director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center.

Cocaine prices are up 20% or more in some cities. Heroin has become harder to find in Denver and Chicago, while supplies of fentanyl are falling in Houston and Philadelphia. In Los Angeles, the price of methamphetamine has more than doubled in recent weeks to $1,800 per pound.

“You have shortages but also some greedy bastards who see an opportunity to make more money,” said Jack Riley, the former deputy administrator of the DEA. “The bad guys frequently use situations that affect the national conscience to raise prices.”

Synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl have been among the most affected, in large part because they rely on precursor chemicals that Mexican cartels import from China, cook into drugs on an industrial scale and then ship to the U.S.

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“This is something we would use as a lesson learned for us,” the head of the DEA, Uttam Dhillon, told AP. “If the disruption is that significant, we need to continue to work with our global partners to ensure that, once we come out of the pandemic, those precursor chemicals are not available to these drug-trafficking organizations.”

Cartels are increasingly shifting away from drugs that require planting and growing seasons, such as heroin and marijuana, in favor of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. These can be cooked continuously through the year, are up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and produce a greater profit margin.

Though some clandestine labs that make fentanyl from scratch have popped up sporadically in Mexico, cartels are still very much reliant upon Chinese companies to get the precursor drugs.

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Huge amounts of these mail-order components can be traced to a single, state-subsidized company in Wuhan that shut down after the outbreak earlier this year, said Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, which monitors Chinese websites selling fentanyl.

“The quarantine of Wuhan and all the chaos there definitely affected the fentanyl trade, particularly between China and Mexico,” said Ben Westhoff, author of “Fentanyl, Inc.”

“The main reason China has been the main supplier is the main reason China is the supplier of everything — it does it so cheaply,” Westhoff said. “There was really no cost incentive for the cartels to develop this themselves.”

But costs have been rising and, as in many legitimate industries, the coronavirus is bringing about changes.

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Advertised prices across China for precursors of fentanyl, methamphetamine and cutting agents have risen between 25% and 400% since late February, said Logan Pauley, an analyst at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a Washington-based security research nonprofit. So even as drug-precursor plants in China are slowly reopening after the worst of the coronavirus crisis there, some cartels have been taking steps to decrease their reliance on overseas suppliers by enlisting scientists to make their own precursor chemicals.

Some Chinese companies that once pushed precursors are now advertising drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, which President Trump has promoted as potential treatment for COVID-19 despite a lack of scientific evidence of its efficacy, as well as personal protective gear such as face masks and hand sanitizers.

Meanwhile, the gummed-up situation on the U.S.-Mexico border resembles a stalled chess match where nobody, especially the traffickers, wants to make a wrong move, said Kyle Williamson, special agent in charge of the DEA’s El Paso field division.

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“They’re in a pause right now,” Williamson said. “They don’t want to get sloppy and take a lot of risks.”

Some Mexican drug rings are even holding back existing methamphetamine supplies to manipulate the market, recognizing that “no good crisis should be wasted,” said Joseph Brown, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas.

“Some cartels have given direct orders to members of their organization that anyone caught selling methamphetamine during this time will be killed,” said Brown, whose sprawling jurisdiction stretches from the suburbs of Dallas to Beaumont.

To be sure, narcotics are still making their way into the U.S. Shelley said that the seizure of drugs in the newly discovered Tijuana-San Diego tunnel was notable in that only about two pounds of fentanyl was recovered, “much lower than usual shipments.”

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Trump announced earlier this month that Navy ships were being moved toward Venezuela as part of a bid to beef up counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean following a U.S. drug indictment against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Capt. Chris Sandoval, who oversees special investigations for the Houston-based Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said there’s a new saying among his detectives: “Not even the dope dealers can hide from the coronavirus.”


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