Are Mexico Crime Groups Fueling Rise in US Overdose Deaths?

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New data shows synthetic opioids are driving a sustained increase in overdose deaths in the United States, and booming seizures of these drugs by US and Mexican authorities suggest that Mexican crime groups could be playing a significant role in supplying the US market.

Drug overdoses in 2017 rose by nearly 10 percent compared to 2016, reaching an all-time high of around 72,000, according to preliminary data from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released on August 15.

In recent years, the number of deaths caused by synthetic opioid overdoses has grown at a staggering pace, from around 10,000 in 2015 to some 29,000 last year — an increase of nearly 300 percent. Synthetic opioids now kill far more Americans than any other kind of drug.

Part of the reason for the spike may be the increasing availability of this type of drug. A 2017 report from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) showed that seizures of fentanyl, one of the most potent and common synthetic opioids, began to skyrocket in 2013.

Much of the fentanyl that makes its way to the United States is produced in China, purchased via the dark web and brought into the United States via mail and courier services direct from China. But a 2016 DEA report cited evidence that Mexican crime groups are involved in importing the drug or its ingredients into Mexico and smuggling it over the US border, and that they have begun to produce it in Mexico using Chinese sourced precursor chemicals. Fentanyl is also mixed in with other drugs, like heroin and cocaine, sometimes without the consumer’s knowledge.

Fentanyl seizures in Mexico have risen sharply in recent years, from just under a kilogram in 2013 to more than 100 kilograms last year. In the first six months of this year, Mexican authorities have already seized 114 kilograms, according to government data obtained by InSight Crime.

US authorities this month have made two major seizures of fentanyl, both of which were described as the largest seizures ever along the border with Mexico.

InSight Crime Analysis

It’s not just deaths from synthetic opioid overdoses that are on the rise in the United States. The number of deaths caused by other drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is also increasing. And Mexican crime groups are the main actors trafficking these substances over the US border.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

It’s not clear exactly how much of the fentanyl in the United States comes from Mexico; much of it enters the country directly through the mail system. However, US officials estimate that 90 percent of heroin in the United States is produced and trafficked from Mexico, and a similar percentage of primarily Colombian sourced cocaine also transits through the United States’ southern neighbor. Fentanyl-laced heroin is one of the major ways that illicit fentanyl is being sold and consumed in the United States.

In addition, seizures of methamphetamine by US border authorities have grown substantially in recent years — a trend that has been linked to a US crackdown on domestic production of the drug that created room for Mexican crime groups to fill the supply gap.

Although Mexican criminal organizations are responsible for introducing the majority of the most deadly drugs into the United States, attempts to disrupt their trafficking activities are unlikely to have a substantial impact on drug use or overdose rates. Instead, international authorities and independent experts have stressed the importance of addiction treatment and prevention efforts as more effective solutions.

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