Illicit Fentanyl Trafficking Patterns Shift with China Still a Major Player

Trafficking prevention baches of seized drugs.

If you want to fight the trafficking of drugs into America, one thing you have to do is stay on top of changes in trafficking patterns. The rule has always been that the drugs, routes, procedures, and patterns will never stay the same for long.

A year or two ago, the deadliest drug threat in America was fentanyl being shipped via Dark Web vendors directly to drug dealers or individual consumers in the U.S. But today, the trafficking pattern has shifted, as it always does every year to 18 months. Now, fewer direct shipments and more indirect shipments come through Mexico.

The process starts with shipments of finished fentanyl or the precursor chemicals needed to manufacture fentanyl leaving from Hong Kong, China or Singapore. These shipments are most often destined for one of Mexico’s two largest port cities: either Manzanillo in the State of Colima or Lazaro Cárdenas in Michoacán.

Manzanillo already has very strong ties with Asian shippers and Lazaro Cárdenas is already a major transshipment point for U.S. merchandise. That makes them both smart choices for drug cartels that seek to acquire the product from Asia and move it to the U.S. Both ports currently move more than a million containers a year through their facilities. That’s an average of 2,740 containers moved each day. A few containers of fentanyl can easily get lost in that volume.

Once the drugs are either received in Mexico or are manufactured using those precursor chemicals, they are then moved into the United States. Shipments start from Mexico City, the State of Mexico, Puebla, Michoacán, Jalisco, Queretaro, Morelos, Nayarit, Sinaloa, Durango, Baja California, Baja California Sur and Sonora. This list encompasses most of the west coast of Mexico plus the central region surrounding Mexico City. Mexican drug trafficking groups play an increasingly important role in the processing of fentanyl headed into the United States.

The Vital Importance of Tracking These Drugs

Why is it vitally important to track and seize shipments of fentanyl? Because of the number of people dying from this powerful drug. There were 70,200 US drug overdose deaths in 2017, and about 41% involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its many analogues (chemically-similar drugs).

Let me give you an idea of how much fentanyl is coming across the border. In 2018, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 2,173 pounds of fentanyl. If this were pure fentanyl, it would translate into 486 million two-milligram doses, more than enough for every man, woman and child in the country to receive a dose and have plenty left over. And that’s only the amount of fentanyl that was found and seized.

Fentanyl enters the U.S. as a pure substance or mixed with heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. In fact, today’s methamphetamine is deadlier than the meth cooked up in rural labs a decade ago, both because it is a much purer product coming out of Mexican Super Labs and because of the presence of fentanyl in some supplies. As an example of its deadliness, meth-related deaths in Kentucky more than tripled from 2013 to 2016.

These days, few American drug dealers are manufacturing meth in domestic labs. Instead, they turn to the same Mexican cartels that traffic fentanyl. The biggest Mexican cartels are now using the skills of their unscrupulous chemists to manufacture both drugs.

Getting the Drugs into the U.S.

Drug trafficking control searching with a dog.

Tijuana and other southern ports of entry are now frequent transshipment points for drugs like meth and fentanyl headed for our communities. A recent news report shows members of the Mexican army raiding a meth lab in Tecate, Mexico, right on the Mexico border just a few miles from Tijuana.

To get fentanyl, methamphetamine and other drugs across the border, drug cartels utilize long-established drug-trafficking routes. Once the drugs are in the U.S., the same street-level distributors take the products to the consumers.

To move their products across the border, cartels typically use these channels:

  • Package delivery companies like U.S. post office, FedEx, UPS, DHL and others
  • Private vehicles
  • Buses
  • Cargo containers
  • Airplanes
  • Boats

Fentanyl is far more profitable than any other drug. For one thing, it’s reasonably cheap to manufacture. For another, the typical dose is so incredibly tiny (about two milligrams) that a small package of drugs can be worth more than a million dollars on the street. It’s no surprise that profit-minded cartels in Mexico have invested in producing this new drug.

What Will the Next Shift Be?

There are some signs that more Asian countries are going to enter the market. India, Pakistan, Thailand and North Korea may become larger players. All these countries have many chemical and pharmaceutical companies capable of manufacturing fentanyl. India, at least, has taken action to limit the ability of unethical manufacturers to produce fentanyl.

In May 2019, China tightened its controls on manufacturing fentanyl but by September, according to a Reuters report, no new fentanyl smuggling cases had been discovered. This leads some people to question their commitment to this responsibility.

There are also some signs that fentanyl use is not only increasing in the U.S. but also in other countries such as Australia, the UK and parts of Europe, according to Stratfor, a global intelligence consulting firm. Some fentanyl trafficking is also being seen along America’s northern border, involving Asian drug dealers that have long been established in Canada.

It’s obvious that the fight to keep fentanyl out of America must be fought on many fronts, using many federal, local and foreign law enforcement agencies. But the fight against fentanyl must also take place in our homes, schools and the media, with prevention and education on the deadly threat posed by these drugs being accurately taught to every young person.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.