Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Not Over Yet

By David G. Young

Mexico City, November 7, 2023 --  

A raging opioid epidemic may spread to Europe and unleash a violent backlash on Mexico.

The extradition of Mexican drug lord Ovidio Guzman to the United States in September marked an escalation in America's struggle to control illegal fentanyl smuggled over the border.1 Increasing anger from the Biden administration and Republican politicians over widespread fentanyl use and 75,000 overdose deaths last year2 have led to rising pressure on Mexican politicians to stem the production and flow of the synthetic drug into the United States.

Last month, banners appeared hanging from overpasses in northern Mexico's Sinaloa state declaring that trafficking in fentanyl was outlawed. They were signed with the name "Los Chapitos," an apparent reference to the sons of jailed Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The Wall Street Journal reported that since the banners went up, there have been reports of kidnapping and execution of those who violated the order.3

Increased pressure from law enforcement, including fears of arrest and extradition like their father and brother appear to have led at least some factions of the cartel to decide that profits from fentanyl trafficking is not worth the heat. Whether or not this change proves sincere and durable remains to be seen. What is most certainly true is that the Sinaloa cartel is not the only criminal group trafficking fentanyl on global market.

That market is bound to get even larger now that Afghanistan's de-facto Taliban government banned cultivation of opium poppies. The United Nations estimates that 2023 production in Afghanistan has dropped by 95 percent, putting the supply chain for naturally-sourced opiates like heroin that dominate European drug markets at risk.4

Strikingly, while fentanyl has largely displaced heroin in the United States and other drug markets in the Americas, fentanyl remains quite rare in Europe. Historic overland opium smuggling routes partly explain the durable popularity of refined heroin vs. synthetic fentanyl. But given fentanyl's extremely low manufacturing cost, the collapse in Afghan opium poppy production may finally force change in Europe's illicit drug markets toward cheaper synthetics.

The last time the Taliban banned opium production, during their rule in 2001, fentanyl did get a temporary foothold in Europe. Estonia grappled widespread fentanyl use and overdoses in the the 2000s and 2010s before a police crackdown closed a production lab in 2017.5

Europe was lucky back then. The popularity of fentanyl did not spread widely beyond Estonia and the local lab producing it was relatively easy to shut down. Today's supply chain spans from chemical factories in China producing precursors, to Colombia where jungle labs originally built for processing cocaine have diversified, and Mexico where entrenched drug cartels control vast swathes of territory. Shutting down this distributed web of manufacturers and smugglers is practically impossible.

But local victories can still be had, and finger pointing is easy. America's Republican politicians have seized on public anger to suggest military action against Mexican drug cartels.6 The proposals range from Donald Trump's threats to deploy special forces to track down drug lords to Vivek Ramaswamy's idea to declare them terrorist organizations and attack them like the Islamic State.

Such ugly populist proposals are unlikely to do much to stop the flow of fentanyl into the United States -- the drug is just too cheap and easy to manufacture from anywhere.  But law enforcement and military crackdowns may have a local impact on Mexico.  The banners declaring fentanyl trafficking outlawed and subsequent violence in Sinaloa give a hint of what might happen when specific illicit drug producers are forced out of the game -- other drug gangs will likely battle to fill the void.

Unfortunately for Mexico, it makes for the easiest scapegoat. America's right-wing is already prone to see Mexico as a villain given its location as an entry point for US-bound migrants. Even if other countries like China and Colombia have greater responsibility for the illegal opioids reaching America.

No trend lasts forever, and the epidemic of fentanyl use will ultimately wane, much like happened with cocaine in the 1990s and with methamphetamine in the 2010s. A few fentanyl users will manage to kick the habit, many will die of an overdose, and some will switch to other drugs to satisfy their cravings. But before this happens, things can still get a lot worse, as the opioid epidemic's tentacles spread across the world. Sadly, it's not over yet. Mexicans and Europeans are on the front lines to find out how bad things will ultimately get.

Related Web columns:

Urban Migration, September 11, 2018


1. Reuters, Mexican capo Ovidio Guzman Extradited to US in Win on Fentanyl War, September 16, 2023

2. ABC News, El Chapo's Sons Purportedly Ban Fentanyl in Mexico's Sinaloa State, October 4, 2023

3. Wall Street Journal, Mexican Sinaloa Cartel’s Message to Members: Stop Making Fentanyl or Die, October 16, 2023

4. Reuters, Afghanistan Opium Poppy Supply Plummets 95% After Taliban Ban, U.N. Says, November 4, 2023

5. Associated Press, Estonia Won its War on Fentanyl, Then Things Got Worse, March 26, 2020

6. Politico, GOP embraces a New Foreign Policy: Bomb Mexico to Stop Fentanyl, April 10, 2023