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Politicians say they'll stop fentanyl smugglers. Experts say new drug war won't work

Drug deaths across the U.S. caused by illicit fentanyl smuggled from Mexico have made the drug trafficking into a top issue in Washington, D.C., as families demand more action.
Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images
Drug deaths across the U.S. caused by illicit fentanyl smuggled from Mexico have made the drug trafficking into a top issue in Washington, D.C., as families demand more action.

President Biden said this weekend that he wants to launch a "major surge to stop fentanyl production and sale" that's driving 70,000 fatal overdoses in the U.S. every year.

There's fierce bipartisan pressure in Washington right now to do whatever it takes to stop Mexican drug cartels smuggling illicit fentanyl over the border.

But reporting by NPR found a broad consensus among drug policy experts that strategies now being put forward are unrealistic and won't keep fentanyl off American streets.

"My belief is there's absolutely no way to stop it," said Rep. David Trone, a Maryland Democrat who co-chaired a bipartisan commission on fentanyl smuggling.

Mexico's former ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, agrees drug interdiction efforts likely won't stop fentanyl.

"As long as both countries continue to hew to the old paradigms, which have not worked, absolutely not, we will not be moving the needle," Sarukhan told NPR.

Despite widespread skepticism, there's growing bipartisan talk of a renewed drug war, and tougher border policies, driven by the unprecedented surge of fentanyl deaths across the U.S.

What U.S. politicians are promising

In recent months, fentanyl has exploded to the top of the agenda in Washington.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border last week and called for more aggressive measures to stop traffickers.

"You cannot tell us this border is secure when now there's enough fentanyl in this country to kill every single American more than 20 times over," the California Republican said. "This has all got to change. That's our commitment and that's what we'll make happen."

Republicans first politicized the fentanyl crisis during the midterms last November, falsely linking drug smuggling with undocumented migrants.

Now Democrats, too, are calling on the Biden administration to do more to pressure Mexican officials to crack down on the cartels.

"We work with our Mexican friends with kid gloves on this issue, and it's fundamentally wrong," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said at a hearing on fentanyl last week. "I don't know how many more lives have to be lost for Mexico to get engaged."

During that hearing, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Anne Milgram, said her agency is building an international effort designed to take down the Jalisco and Sinaloa cartels, which produce and smuggle most of the fentanyl entering the U.S.

"The DEA has made defeating those two cartels our top operational priority," she said.

But drug policy experts interviewed by NPR say these ideas — pressuring Mexico, further securing the border and defeating the cartels — are unlikely to succeed.

Experts say fentanyl smuggling increased sharply in recent years. In 2022 alone, the DEA seized more than 50 million fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl along with more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder.

That's a doubling of fentanyl seizures from just a year before. It's widely believed far more fentanyl is reaching American streets.

The cartels just keep getting stronger, fueled by fentanyl profits

One flaw in the U.S. strategy, experts say, is that the Mexican government is simply too weak to take on the cartels no matter how much diplomatic pressure Washington applies.

Sarukhan, Mexico's former ambassador to the U.S., said only a handful of law enforcement agencies in his country are willing or able to engage with the powerful drug gangs.

"There's no doubt that endemic corruption, impunity, a weak rule of law are Mexico's achilles heels," Sarukhan said. "That means fentanyl and methamphetamine labs operate in Mexico with almost no pressure."

The first time the U.S. can do anything about these drugs is when they cross the border, almost always passing through official checkpoints hidden in cars or commercial trucks driven by American citizens.

President Biden and others have argued for improving technology designed to detect fentanyl at those crossings, but the drug is uniquely difficult to detect and stop.

Fentanyl is so powerful, it can be smuggled in tiny quantities. If a single backpack full of the synthetic opioid reaches the U.S., it can feed the street demand in an entire region of the country.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on the Mexican cartels at The Brookings Institution, says while Washington talks tough, the cartels have grown stronger.

"They govern territories, people, economies and in fact they also govern institutions," she said.

Felbab-Brown points to "dramatic levels of corruption and dramatic levels of infiltration of the cartels into judicial and law enforcement institutions in Mexico" that make it nearly impossible for the Mexican government to help the U.S. in the drug war.

In recent years, U.S. officials have identified cartel-related corruption at the highest levels of the Mexican government. The former head of Mexico's equivalent of the FBI, Genaro Garcia Luna, is currently on trial in New York City, after being arrested in Dallas, Texas, in 2019.

Diplomatic breakdowns make the fentanyl fight even harder

During the Trump administration, Mexico backed away from almost all drug interdiction partnerships with the U.S., and things haven't improved much since.

At last week's Senate hearing, the DEA's Milgram said there's so little cooperation that her agents can't take down known fentanyl labs or even get good intel from Mexican cops. "We are not getting information on fentanyl seizures; we are not getting information on seizures of precursor chemicals," she acknowledged.

Mexico is not the only problem for U.S. officials focused on the fentanyl problem.

The chemicals used to make the synthetic opioid come from China. But as disputes over Taiwan and other issues have escalated, the Chinese government has suspended most drug-fighting collaborations with Washington.

"Rather than demonstrate global leadership by engaging in efforts to rein in illicit precursor production and trafficking ... [Beijing] is instead choosing to not engage," Dr. Rahul Gupta, who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified during last week's Senate hearing.

Could this drug war become an actual war?

Some Republican governors, lawmakers and state attorneys general have called for the U.S. government to designate the Jalisco and Sinaloa cartels as terrorist organizations comparable to al-Qaida or ISIS.

In September, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a symbolic executive order in his state classifying drug smugglers as terrorists. "Fentanyl is a clandestine killer, and Texans are falling victim to the Mexican cartels that are producing it," he said. "Cartels are terrorists, and it's time we treated them that way.

Former President Donald Trump considered a terrorist classification for the cartels and reportedly entertained the idea of missile strikes against drug labs inside Mexico.

The Biden administration has resisted that kind of escalation, and Rep. Trone agrees that it would be a grave mistake. "We could do major raids in Mexico with our military [but] it's not our country," Trone said. "It's their country. They've chosen not to go after the drug traffickers."

He believes that were the U.S. to fight an actual war against the cartels inside Mexico, it would destabilize that country in much the way wars in Afghanistan and Iraq destabilized those nations.

If fentanyl is here to stay, what do we do?

Even if China and Mexico were willing or able to help fight the cartels, stopping fentanyl smugglers would still be incredibly difficult.

The U.S. is actually seizing record amounts of fentanyl in drug busts, but the drug is so cheap to manufacture, the cartels just make more.

That doesn't mean the fentanyl crisis is hopeless. According to Trone, a more promising strategy is to focus on reducing American hunger for drugs.

"That's the only chance we've got," he said. "Without the Mexican government's help, without the Chinese government's help, we can't win [against the smugglers]. So we have to go on the demand side, work on all the things with education, work on treatment, work on prevention."

Most drug policy experts agree the public health model is a more promising way to save lives. They also say public fears about fentanyl will likely raise political pressure in Washington for a tough response on the border, whether it's effective or not.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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