Sinaloa, Jalisco cartels in Mexico are the greatest drug threat in U.S. history: DEA official

Two Mexican cartels have foot soldiers in every U.S. state and “represent the largest criminal drug threat the United States has ever faced,” a senior Drug Enforcement Administration official told a House panel on Wednesday as lawmakers discussed options debated stopping the fentanyl crisis, which was killing tens of thousands of Americans a year.

The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel control the illicit fentanyl supply chain by sourcing precursor chemicals from China. They turn the chemicals into finished fentanyl in secret labs and compress it into counterfeit prescription pills, ship it as a powder, and cut it with drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, said Jon C. DeLena, the DEA’s assistant administrator for business operations.

“These ruthless, violent criminal organizations have collaborators, intermediaries and brokers in every 50 states and in more than 40 countries around the world,” Mr. DeLena told the House Energy and Trade Committee subcommittee on health. “I saw first hand what the Mexican cartels did to our great country. The cartels destroy families and communities with callous indifference and greed.”

Overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids have risen from nearly 10,000 in 2015 and 20,000 in 2016 – when fentanyl began to infiltrate the US drug supply – to 56,000 in 2020 and more than 70,000 in 2021, according to the latest available Federal figures based on death certificates.

The astounding and steady rise in drug overdose deaths in the US accelerated in the early years of COVID-19 as drug users were cut off from support networks. Washington focused much of its attention on the coronavirus as its most pressing public health crisis.

House Republicans, who recently voted to end COVID-19 emergency services, say they will focus on the fentanyl crisis.

Biden administration witnesses said Wednesday that diplomatic efforts to stem the flow of fentanyl have targeted Mexico, China and India and have met with mixed results.

Kemp Chester, a senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the US relationship with China “does not move in a straight line.” He said the Trump administration pressured Beijing in 2019 to permanently schedule fentanyl in its most restrictive class.

Since then, not much finished fentanyl product has flowed out of China, although many precursor chemicals are still being diverted to Mexico.

“Mexico became the scene of illicit fentanyl production,” said Mr. Chester. “What we ask [China] What we need to do now is better monitor their shipping and chemical industries that are diverting these chemicals for production.”

Mr. DeLena said Mexican leaders also need to step up their game.

“These two specific cartels, Jalisco and Sinaloa, that are causing all this harm are operating with virtual impunity,” he said. “We need the Mexican government to step in and do a lot more.”

According to Mr. DeLena’s written testimony, the Sinaloa cartel is one of the oldest drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and controls areas near the Pacific coast. Typically, drugs are smuggled into the US through border crossings in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to reach distribution centers in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago.

The Jalisco Cartel is based in Guadalajara, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and uses trade corridors that run through the border cities of Tijuana, Mexicali, Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo. It has US distribution centers in Los Angeles; Seattle; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; and Atlanta.

“The rapid expansion of the Jalisco Cartel’s drug trafficking activities is marked by the organization’s willingness to engage in violent confrontations with Mexican government security forces and rival cartels,” Mr. DeLena said.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, said he is pushing legislation that would increase federal penalties for traffickers and sanction Mexican officials who work with the cartels. From the dais he read the names of the cartel leaders: Ismael Zambada Garcia and Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes.

“Everyone should know who these two guys are because they kill tens of thousands of Americans,” he said. “We all know who Osama bin Laden is. We started a war just to pursue it. We should start a war against these cartels because they are at war with us.”

President Biden urged Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to clamp down on the flow of fentanyl during a summit of North American leaders in Mexico City last month.

The White House said leaders are discussing “enhanced cooperation to prosecute drug traffickers and dismantle criminal networks, disrupt supplies of illicit precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, shut down drug labs and prevent trafficking in drugs, weapons and… people across our common border.”

Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, a Georgia Republican, said he was not confident the issue would be fixed. He cited a recent Washington Post article that found the DEA Mexico City office had been in turmoil for six months while the agency recalled the director and investigated his conduct, including allegations that he had funds abused for his birthday party. The report also said cooperation with Lopez Obrador’s government had deteriorated.

“This is too important — 200 people die every day,” Carter said.

Mr. DeLena said the DEA in Mexico is “laser focused on the cartels and the fentanyl, methamphetamine they produce,” but he reiterated that Mexican authorities “need to do more when it comes to cooperation.”

He said social media companies need to monitor their platforms for drug deals and retain posts that law enforcement agencies may need to track and prosecute dealers.

“It’s very clear that social media has become a drug superhighway,” Mr. DeLena said.

Drug cartels and the drug trafficking organizations that work on their behalf “actually advertise, sell and make payments using these types of applications,” he said.

Committee chairs and staff have signaled that the role of social media will be a focus of future hearings.

How to stop the cartels and their smuggling operations, the panel shared on Wednesday along partisan lines.

Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Kentucky Republican and subcommittee chair, wants Congress to pass a bill by Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia Republican, that would permanently place fentanyl and its analogs on the Schedule I high-risk-of-abuse drugs list would not have an accepted medical purpose. The idea is to ensure every dangerous compound is covered so cartels don’t circumvent the law by tweaking molecules in deadly drugs, while also ensuring drug bans never expire.

“These continued temporary fixes are not sustainable,” Mr Guthrie said. “We need a permanent solution and must pass the HALT Fentanyl Act now. This will be my top priority for as long as I chair his Subcommittee on Health.”

The White House last year tabled a proposal to permanently add fentanyl-related substances to Schedule I, but said the drugs should be exempt from volume-based mandatory minimum penalties.

“We have learned time and again that incarceration is not the way to extricate ourselves from a public health crisis and that a more comprehensive public health approach is needed to get to the root of the health problem,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat.

California Democrat Rep. Tony Cardenas said he was concerned the class-wide scheduling would set a “guilty-until-proven innocent” precedent.

“The proposal put forward by my Republican colleagues fully addresses the application of harsh federal penalties, but lays almost no basis for testing the potential harmlessness of these fentanyl-related substances, or even their potential therapeutic value,” he said.

The White House plan says mandatory minimums would continue to apply to cases where death or serious injury is directly related to the drugs.

Republicans said their plan includes exceptions for researchers and Democrats are extending too many special rules for traffickers.

“The government supports exempting the entire class from mandatory minimums normally imposed on drug traffickers and is preventing law enforcement from stopping those who are bringing deadly substances into our communities,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican and Chair of the entire committee.

Mr Pallone said the committee should focus on a separate bill that would help ex-prisoners obtain drug treatment through simple enrollments in Medicaid before leaving custody.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, said efforts should focus on stopping the supply of drugs from abroad, arguing lax gun laws were to blame. She pointed to Mexican cartels trading illegal fentanyl for “readily available American weapons.”

Some progress has been made in reducing drug overdose deaths.

About 110,000 people died from drug overdoses in the 12 months to March, before the rate plateaued and eased slightly over the next few months. About 107,000 people died from drug overdoses in the 12 months ended August, the latest month for which federal data is available.

“There are signs of hope, but we still have a very long way to go,” testified Mr. Chester.

He said the Treasury Department is imposing sanctions on people involved in illegal drug trafficking and that US Customs and Border Protection seized 15,000 pounds of fentanyl in 2022.

“These are drugs that will be permanently removed from the illicit supply chain and will not kill our citizens,” said Mr Chester, who oversees international relations and supply reduction.

A December announcement of record seizures underscored the role of Mexican gangs.

“DEA’s top operational priority is to defeat the two Mexican drug cartels — the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels — that are primarily responsible for the fentanyl that is killing Americans today,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram.

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