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The sea cucumber arrived. Then more arrived. Then more. It was a lot, investigators noted—too much for that northwestern corner of New York state.

The shipments were, US prosecutors would declare later in an indictment, more than the small delectable culled from ocean reefs, and often prized in Asia for being both tasty and sexually invigorating. They were camouflaging poly-drug loads, which included the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that more than 47,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2017 in the United States—28,000 of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids, which the CDC says is largely the result of the uptick in abuse of fentanyl.

This article is part of a series on the growing demand for fentanyl and its deadly consequences done with the support of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. See the rest of the series here.

This cargo would arrive from Mexico into San Diego and was then flown to Buffalo, where it was divided for distribution in various parts of New York. The trafficking, US authorities said, “Turned the City of Buffalo into ground zero for fentanyl/heroin trafficking in NY State; fuelling drug addiction, overdoses and violent crime.”

Specifically, the indictment says that “the pallets bearing illegal narcotics were secreted in containers sealed with foam or spray insulation to avoid detection by law enforcement.”

banner download reportFor a while, passing off the drugs as sea cucumber minimized the risk of searches by border authorities, noted the Albuquerque Journal in a series of reports on the Sinaloa Cartel.

“Each port has a limited budget to pay for ‘spoilage’ during unsuccessful drug searches, so without specific information or indicators of drugs in the load of seafood, the (frozen) loads get processed rapidly,” the report said.

The structure behind the imports also set up four front companies—three in California (Triton Foods Inc, Kamora Investment Enterprises, Fresh Choice Produce), and one in the State of New York (Corral Seafoods LLC)—to conceal its trafficking activities. These entities’ bank accounts were used to deposit and launder some $20 million in drug proceeds in a single year.

Cartel’s Reach into the US

US agents linked this operation to the Sinaloa Cartel. The man behind it, José Ruben Gil, a former mayor of the Izúcar de Matamoros town in Puebla, Mexico, had ties to the cartel, the Buffalo News reported.

Born in the traditional epicenter of opium and marijuana production, the Sinaloa Cartel was originally a group of families famously led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and the Beltrán Leyva brothers, who combined forces from production point to market. Its tentacles reached deep into the security forces and political circles making it the most formidable criminal organization in the country.

“The Sinaloa Cartel’s reach from Mexico into US cities is most evident in this investigation,” DEA Special Agent in Charge James J. Hunt said in a Department of Justice Press Release.

A total of 8.5 kilograms of fentanyl were seized during the investigation, but authorities said the Gil network “trafficked thousands of kilograms of illegal narcotics, including heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine throughout the United States.”

The case demonstrated the agility of the larger Mexican drug trafficking networks. As the fentanyl market emerged, the alleged cartel affiliates could easily accommodate the drugs in their poly-drug loads.

Other cases in the United States have also been traced back to the Sinaloa Cartel. In the Southern District of Ohio, for example, a federal grand jury charged 12 individuals in a narcotics and money laundering conspiracy that allegedly distributed fentanyl from Mexico in Middletown, Ohio and sent proceeds back to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. And in the Northern District of the same state, 20 people were indicted—allegedly with links to the Sinaloa Cartel—for their role in a fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine trafficking enterprise.

A Sinaloa Boogeyman

Still, the connection to the Sinaloa Cartel seemed spurious, reflexive even. The name evokes fear and often makes for an easier prosecution. However, authorities gave no details of what this connection was and refer to the organization as the “Gil/Aguirre DTO” in the indictment in which seventeen individuals were charged, 15 of which had been convicted by December 2018.

Some Mexican officials told InSight Crime during our investigation into fentanyl-trafficking networks that this is related to the simplistic notions of how criminal organizations work in Mexico.

“Sure, we are all Sinaloa. Why not?” a high-ranking judicial official, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, quipped.

The official pointed to the example of El Chapo whose involvement in the day-to-day operations of his suppliers and distributors was minimal, and the fact that there were continuous and significant frictions with his alleged partners in the Sinaloa Cartel.

The reality of the Mexican underworld is that there is a plethora of smaller organizations that are subcontracted by the umbrella groups like the Sinaloa Cartel. These include remnants of organizations that once specialized in the import of precursors, and the production and export of methamphetamines, such as the Familia Michoacana or the Knights Templar. Parts of both of those organizations were subsumed by groups like the Sinaloa Cartel or continue to operate independently, Mexican and US law enforcement told InSight Crime.

There were also parts of the larger umbrella groups that specialized in methamphetamine prior to the fentanyl boom, namely Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, who was a top member of the Sinaloa Cartel and was killed in a shootout with Mexican military in July 2010; and the Valencia brothers, who ran the Milenio Cartel and operated out of Michoacán prior to the emergence of the Familia Michoacana.

Portions of both Nacho Coronel’s old organization and the Milenio Cartel are the core of Sinaloa’s top rival, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), the other oft-cited culprit of fentanyl scourge in the United States. But there are undoubtedly others who work primarily for the Sinaloa Cartel and others that remain independent.

The reconfiguration of these criminal groups is almost constant. And while it is easy for crime analysts, law enforcement, and prosecutors to place them in large groups, the truth is that these are fluid relationships subject to a large number of changing variables. In fact, over the last several years, it is clear that the traditionally hierarchical drug trafficking organizations in Mexico have been replaced by flatter, more nimble organizations that are loosely networked.

Within this framework, it is likely that Sinaloa and the CJNG outsource aspects of production and trafficking to smaller criminal groups. Sinaloa, in particular, is believed to operate with an increasingly horizontal structure in which local and regional gangs that specialize in particular operations are subcontracted for their services.

This article is part of a series on the growing demand for fentanyl and its deadly consequences done with the support of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. See the rest of the series here.

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