05/09/2023 (written by abrizuela) – On April 14, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a sweeping array of charges against 28 powerful members of the Sinaloa cartel. (El Pais) The details of the Grand Jury charges were released to the public in a 65-page report that reveals the complex drug trafficking operation of the Sinaloa Cartel. The Sinaloa Cartel is identified by the Justice Department as being responsible for the “largest, most violent, and most prolific fentanyl trafficking operation in the world.” The Justice Department claims to have targeted every stage of the Sinaloa Cartel’s fentanyl trafficking network, from the Chinese pharmaceutical companies that supply fentanyl precursors to the Cartel, to the money launderers responsible for transferring the fentanyl proceeds from the United States to Mexico. Tens of millions of dollars in rewards are being offered by the Justice Department as part of their effort to arrest the Sinaloa Cartel’s top leaders. (NPR)
The Sinaloa Cartel
Anne Milgram, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), announced that the Justice Department’s indictments were a direct result of the DEA’s successful infiltration into the highest levels of the Sinaloa Cartel. The public indictments have provided a unique insight into the daily operations of the cartel, which has changed considerably under the new leadership of El Chapo’s sons, commonly referred to as “Los Chapitos”.
Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, commonly known as El Chapo was the original leader of the Sinaloa Cartel; under his leadership, the cartel mainly focused on selling cocaine and methamphetamine. Since El Chapo was arrested and extradited to the U.S, Los Chapitos; Guzmán’s sons Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar, and Ovidio Guzmán López; now lead the most powerful faction of the cartel. Los Chapito’s Sinaloa is centered around the lucrative fentanyl trafficking operation, acquiring hundreds of millions of dollars in profit from their production and distribution of fentanyl. Since 2014, Los Chapitos have expanded their fentanyl trafficking operations exponentially, as it now encompasses an extensive international operation.
The supply chain begins in China, the Cartel ships fentanyl precursor chemicals from China to clandestine labs in Mexico where the fentanyl is then manufactured. After being manufactured, Cartel traffickers move the fentanyl into the United States where it is sold wholesale to other criminal organizations. In the process, fentanyl powder is mixed into other narcotics such as cocaine and heroin along with counterfeit prescription pain medication, pushing users of other drugs into fentanyl addictions. Consequently, many Americans accidentally overdose on fentanyl because they are not aware it is present in the drugs they consume. Finally, an extensive network of money launderers work with the Cartel to ensure the profits from the fentanyl sales are returned back to the Cartel.
In addition to using corruption and bribe payments to ensure loyalty to the Cartel, Los Chapitos rely on hitmen or sicarios to protect their fentanyl trafficking operations. The main sicario group in charge of Los Chapitos’ security is known as “Los Ninis”. Sicarios are often used to protect Los Chapitos leaders, territory, labs, and trafficking routes. They frequently resort to violence to protect Los Chapitos operation by using military grade weapons for murder, kidnap, and torture. Los Chapitos capitalize on the violence of their sicarios to establish and expand control in other areas of Mexico outside of Sinaloa. Under the command of Los Chapitos, sicarios assert their dominance in the new areas through a process called “cleaning” as they commit acts of violence to intimidate local populations and rival trafficking organizations into submission. At a press conference where the indictments were announced, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland stated “They often torture and kill their victims…They have fed some of their victims, dead and alive, to tigers belonging to the Chapitos.” (NPR) Los Chapitos are currently active in over half of the Mexican states and have extensive international operations with a criminal network that encompasses nearly every major city.
Chinese Pharmaceutical Companies’ Ties to the Sinaloa Cartel
The international reach of the Sinaloa Cartel is exemplified by their complex fentanyl supply chain that begins with precursor chemicals provided by Chinese pharmaceutical companies. The U.S. Department of State has accused China of ineffective oversight of their chemical and pharmaceutical industries as they enable the production of fentanyl and fentanyl precursors abroad. Los Chapitos use brokers in other countries to purchase the precursor chemicals from China on the Cartel’s behalf. These brokers also oversee the transfer of the precursor chemicals from China to the Cartel in Mexico. Chinese pharmaceutical companies involved in the production of the precursor chemicals claim to have no direct ties to the Cartel thanks to the work of these middlemen. Additionally, many of the Chinese companies manage to get paid without leaving a trace through the use of cryptocurrencies and payment platforms such as Alipay. (Milenio) The U.S. Treasury Department has responded to the DOJ’s investigation by placing sanctions on five individuals and two Chinese companies for their involvement in selling fentanyl precursor chemicals from China to the Sinaloa Cartel.
The Fentanyl Crisis in the United States
The DOJ’s aggressive attack on the Sinaloa Cartel is in response to a fentanyl crisis that has claimed the lives of countless American citizens. Unlike heroin and cocaine, fentanyl is a synthetic drug that has no natural limits on its production, making it extremely cheap for traffickers to replace seizures. (Scientific American) Advances in synthetic chemistry have facilitated the production of fentanyl with the use of safer precursor ingredients that can be treated at room temperature without sophisticated equipment. (Scientific American) Given these advances, the production of fentanyl is widely distributed without the need for a single critical lab, making it harder for law enforcement to shutdown fentanyl outbreaks. (Scientific American)
Fentanyl is extremely potent as it is 30 to 50 times stronger by weight than the street heroin it replaces. As a result, the smuggled quantities across the border are miniscule compared to the U.S.-Mexican trade in which smuggling is embedded. (Scientific American) In 2022, the DEA confiscated over 57 million fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills along with 13,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. Together, this is the equivalent of 410 million potentially deadly doses of fentanyl which is enough to kill the entire population of the United States.. Fatal overdoses in the United States also increased by 94% between 2019 and 2021, with an estimated 196 Americans dying every day as a result of fentanyl poisoning. The DOJ considers the current fentanyl crisis to be an epidemic, as countless families and communities across the country have been negatively impacted by the human loss brought about by this potent drug.
AMLO’s Reaction to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Charges
The U.S. indictments targeting the Sinaloa Cartel come as Biden’s administration faces increasing political pressure to stop the flow of fentanyl into the United States. (NPR) Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) criticized the United States for spying on the Sinaloa Cartel without first asking for his government’s permission. (NPR) AMLO perceived the DEA’s infiltration of the Chapitos network to be part of a wider campaign of unwarranted U.S. espionage, stating “It is abusive, arrogant meddling that should not be accepted under any circumstance.” (NPR) AMLO also argued that fentanyl is not produced in Mexican territory, and that it is instead imported from Asia. (Aristegui Noticias) While AMLO hinted towards the importance of confronting the problem of drug consumption within the United States, he quickly clarified this will only be a matter of cooperation between the two countries. (Aristegui Noticias)
As tension rises between the two countries over the handling of the fentanyl crisis, some U.S. experts are beginning to question the effectiveness of the DOJ’s approach of reducing overdose deaths in American soil by dismantling Los Chapitos network. Jonathan Caulkins, a drug trafficking researcher at Carnegie University is particularly skeptical of this approach. Caulkins believes that if the Chapitos are somehow eliminated from the fentanyl trade, other factions of the Sinaloa Cartel or other major drug trafficking organizations such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel will simply replace them and pick up the slack. (NPR) In the past, the war on drugs centered around the kingpin strategy has proven itself to be ineffective, leading Caulkins to believe this time will be no different. (NPR)
Caulkins, Jonathan. “Stopping Fentanyl at the Border Won’t Work. We must Reimagine Drug Law Enforcement.” Scientific American. April 17, 2023.
“EU debe analizar su territorio, no solo Sinaloa o México: AMLO.” Aristegui Noticias. April 17, 2023.
Hernández, Angel. “Empresas chinas venden ‘kits’ para producir fentanilo al narco mexicano en redes sociales.” Milenio. April 24, 2023.
Jiménez, Miguel. “Estados Unidos presenta cargos contra ‘los Chapitos’ y otros 25 miembros del Cartel de Sinaloa.” El Pais. April 14, 2023.
Justice News. “Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks on Charges Against Sinaloa Cartel’s Global Operation.” The United States Department of Justice. April 14, 2023. https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-merrick-b-garland-delivers-remarks-charges-against-sinaloa-cartel-s
Mann, Brian. “U.S. says it ‘infiltrated’ the Sinaloa drug cartel in the fight against fentanyl.” NPR. April 21, 2023.
United States District Court Southern District of New York. “Sealed Indictment.” April 4, 2023.