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Fentanyl and the US-China-Mexico triangle

In the early stages of the opioids crisis the roles of the three main countries – the US, China, and Mexico - appeared relatively clear. The US was the main consumer country, with strong demand from users and addicts, but also with a government motivated to prevent the flood of fentanyl coming across its borders and fuelling its public health crisis. China was the main producer country, with a massive chemical and pharmaceutical industry churning out not only fentanyl but also the precursor chemicals and pre-precursor chemicals used in its manufacture, as well as in the manufacture of analogues.

Mexico, or more precisely, Mexico’s main drug-trafficking cartels, was left to find a role for itself in the new emerging market. Some pure fentanyl was being sent directly from China to the US, often in the form of small packages sent through the post. An early role was for Mexico to import fentanyl from China and use its own northern cross-border trafficking routes to get the product into the US. Perhaps more significantly, the Mexican cartels also began cutting heroin and cocaine with fentanyl, and thereby maximising their profits from selling the adulterated versions of the drug into the US. That also included building clandestine synthetic opioid laboratories and hiring expert chemical ‘cooks’ with the right experience and qualifications to manage the labs.

By all accounts May 2019 was a key turning point in the triangular relationship. Up to and immediately after that point, the Chinese government had responded relatively positively to US requests for cooperation to limit the flow of fentanyl. The US had invoked the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, which provides for agreements to ‘schedule’ or list harmful drugs for international regulatory controls. In 2017 UN member states had already agreed to list two fentanyl precursors, later followed by three further precursors. Effective from May 2019, China applied corresponding domestic controls.

A report by the US Congressional Research Service says that as a result of bilateral discussions with China in this period, four major successes were achieved. First, China agreed to list all fentanyl-related substances. According to testimony by Kemp Chester of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), as a result “the direct shipment of fentanyl and fentanyl related substances from China to the United States went down to almost zero”. Second, Chinese courts in Hebei and Shanghai for the first-time sentenced defendants for trafficking fentanyl (according to some accounts this was assisted by US-provided intelligence). Third, and also according to ONDCP, seizures of fentanyl precursor and pre-precursor chemicals in China reached “consistently high” numbers. And finally, in fourth place, the Beijing government approved a US request to allow the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to open additional offices in the country (it already had a presence in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong).

Fentanyl flow to the United States 2019

Source: DEA

However, as diplomatic tensions between Washington and Beijing resumed, the progress that had been achieved on fentanyl went into reverse. An initial trigger point came in May 2020 when Washington listed an institute based in the Xinjiang autonomous region and controlled by China’s ministry of public security, which it said was “implicated in human rights violations and abuses”. The US imposed export controls on the institute. A statement by the Chinese embassy in Washington said the listing “greatly affected China’s goodwill to help the US in fighting drugs”. Then, in August 2022, China reacted angrily to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, announcing the formal suspension of cooperation in five areas, one of which was counter-narcotics. Since then, China has not scheduled any newly available fentanyl precursors. It has also dismissed the idea of introducing ‘know your customer’ protocols for drugs-exporting companies, an idea suggested by the US.  

The weakening of US-China cooperation has in effect created new opportunities for non-state and criminal actors in all three countries. In testimony to a House of Representatives subcommittee in March this year, Brookings senior fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown outlined the way the fentanyl market is now operating. She saw the likelihood of China “meaningfully” intensifying its drug cooperation with the US as low. In the new situation, China continues to block direct fentanyl exports to the US, but in effect turns a blind eye to large flows of precursor chemicals being shipped to Mexico. Mexico has, as a result, become the main source of fentanyl entering the US. Felbab-Brown said: “Instead of finished fentanyl being shipped directly to the United States, most smuggling to the US now takes place via Mexico. Mexican criminal groups source fentanyl, fentanyl precursors, and increasingly, pre-precursors from China, and then traffic finished fentanyl from Mexico to the United States. Scheduling of fentanyl and its precursors in China is not sufficient to stem fentanyl flows to the United States.”

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