Two Mexican cartels have foot soldiers in every U.S. state and “pose the greatest criminal drug threat the United States has ever faced,” a top Drug Enforcement Administration official told a House panel Wednesday as lawmakers debated ways to stop the fentanyl crisis killing tens of thousands of Americans per year.
The Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel control the supply chain for illicit fentanyl by obtaining precursor chemicals from China. They turn the chemicals into finished fentanyl at clandestine labs and press it into fake prescription pills, ship it as powder and cut it with drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, said Jon C. DeLena, the DEA’s associate administrator for business operations.
“These ruthless, violent criminal organizations have associates, facilitators and brokers in all 50 states as well as in more than 40 countries around the world,” Mr. DeLena told the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I have seen firsthand what the Mexican cartels have done to our great country. The cartels are destroying families and communities with callous indifference and greed.”
Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids have soared from nearly 10,000 in 2015 and 20,000 in 2016 — when fentanyl started to infiltrate the U.S. drug supply — to 56,000 in 2020 and more than 70,000 in 2021, according to the most recent federal figures available based on death certificates.
The staggering and steady rise in U.S. overdose deaths accelerated during the early COVID-19 years as drug users were cut off from support networks. Washington focused much of its attention on the coronavirus as its most pressing health crisis.
House Republicans who recently voted to end COVID-19 emergency authorities say they will focus on the fentanyl crisis.
Biden administration witnesses testified Wednesday that diplomatic efforts to stop the flow of fentanyl target Mexico, China and India, and have produced mixed results.
Kemp Chester, a senior adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the U.S. relationship with China “doesn’t move in a straight line.” He said the Trump administration pressured Beijing in 2019 to permanently schedule fentanyl on its most restrictive class.
Since then, he said, not much finished-product fentanyl has been flowing from China, though plenty of precursor chemicals are still diverted to Mexico.
“Mexico became the locus of illicit fentanyl production,” Mr. Chester said. “What we’re asking [China] to do now is to exert more oversight over their shipping industries and chemical industries that divert these chemicals for production.”
Mr. DeLena said Mexican leaders also need to step up their game.
“Those two specific cartels, Jalisco and Sinaloa, that are causing all of this harm, are operating virtually with impunity,” he said. “We need the Mexican government to lean in and do a lot more.”
The Sinaloa cartel is one of the oldest drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico and controls territory near the Pacific Coast, according to Mr. DeLena’s written testimony. It typically smuggles drugs into the U.S. through crossing points in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to reach distribution hubs in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago.
The Jalisco cartel is based in Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco and uses trafficking corridors that run through the border cities of Tijuana, Mexicali, Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo. It has U.S. distribution hubs in Los Angeles; Seattle; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; and Atlanta.
“The Jalisco cartel’s rapid expansion of its drug trafficking activities is characterized by the organization’s willingness to engage in violent confrontations with Mexican government security forces and rival cartels,” Mr. DeLena said.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, said he is pushing a bill that would increase federal criminal penalties on 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’re killing tens of thousands of Americans,” he said. “We all know who Osama bin Laden is. We started a war just to go after him. We should start a war against these cartels because they’re at war with us.”
President Biden pressed Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to crack down on the flow of fentanyl during a North American leaders summit in Mexico City last month.
The White House said the leaders discussed “increased cooperation to prosecute drug traffickers and dismantle criminal networks, disrupt the supply of illicit precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, shut down drug laboratories, and prevent trafficking of drugs, arms, and people across our shared border.”
Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, Georgia Republican, said he wasn’t confident that the problem would be fixed. He cited a recent article in The Washington Post that found the DEA’s office in Mexico City was in turmoil for six months while the agency recalled the director and reviewed his conduct, including accusations that he misused funds for his birthday party. The report also said cooperation with the Lopez Obrador government had deteriorated.
“This is too important — 200 people dying every day,” Mr. Carter said.
Mr. DeLena said the DEA in Mexico is “laser-focused on the cartels and the fentanyl, methamphetamine they are producing,” but he repeated that Mexican authorities “need to do more when it comes to collaboration.”
He said social media companies need to monitor their platforms for drug deals and preserve posts that law enforcement might need to track and prosecute dealers.
“It’s very clear that social media has become a superhighway for drugs,” Mr. DeLena said.
Drug cartels and the drug trafficking organizations that work on their behalf, he said, “are advertising, actually completing sales and effectuating payment using these types of applications.”
Committee leaders and staff have signaled that social media’s role will be the focus of future hearings.
How to stop the cartels and their smuggling operations divided the panel along partisan lines Wednesday.
Rep. Brett Guthrie, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, wants Congress to pass a bill from Rep. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican, that would permanently place fentanyl and its analogs on the list of Schedule I drugs with a high risk of abuse and no accepted medical purpose. The idea is to make sure every dangerous compound is covered so cartels don’t skirt the law by tweaking molecules in deadly drugs, while ensuring that bans on drugs never expire.
“These continued temporary solutions are not sustainable,” Mr. Guthrie said. “We need a permanent solution and must pass the HALT Fentanyl Act now. Doing so will be my top priority as long as I’m chairman of his health subcommittee.”
The White House submitted a proposal last year to permanently put fentanyl-related substances on Schedule I but said the drugs should be exempted from quantity-based mandatory minimum criminal penalties.
“We’ve learned time and time again that we cannot incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis and that a broader public health approach is needed to address what is at its root a health problem,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat.
Rep. Tony Cardenas, California Democrat, said he is concerned that classwide scheduling would set a precedent of “guilty until proven innocent.”
“The proposal put forth by my Republican colleagues goes all-in on applying harsh federal penalties but lays almost no groundwork to test for the potential harmlessness of these fentanyl-related substances or even their potential therapeutic value,” he said.
The White House plan says mandatory minimum terms would still apply to cases in which death or serious bodily injury is directly linked to the drugs.
Republicans said their plan has exemptions for researchers and that Democrats are extending too many carve-outs for traffickers.
“The administration supports exempting the entire class from mandatory minimums that are typically imposed upon drug traffickers, preventing law enforcement from stopping those who bring deadly substances into our communities,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican and chairwoman of the full committee.
Mr. Pallone said the committee should focus on a separate bill that would help former prisoners enter drug treatment through easy sign-ups on Medicaid coverage before they leave incarceration.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, California Democrat, said efforts should focus on stopping the supply of drugs from abroad and argued that lax gun laws were to blame. She pointed to Mexican cartels trading illicit fentanyl for “readily available American guns.”
Some progress has been made in reducing drug overdose deaths.
About 110,000 people died of overdoses from any drug in the 12 months ending in March, before the rate plateaued and eased slightly over the next several months. Roughly 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in the 12 months that ended in August, the most recent month for which federal data is available.
“There are signs of hope, but we have a very long way to go,” Mr. Chester testified.
He said the Treasury Department is imposing sanctions on people involved in the illicit drug trade and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 15,000 pounds of fentanyl in 2022.
“These are drugs permanently removed from the illicit supply chain, not killing our citizens,” said Mr. Chester, who oversees international relations and supply reduction.
A December announcement on 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,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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