How America Can Shore Up Asian Order
A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy
Earlier this month, a federal jury in New York convicted Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the former kingpin of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel, on ten charges related to drug trafficking. El Chapo was stunned, his wife cried, and U.S. authorities crowed.
For some, the verdict offered finality: “The reign of Joaquín Guzmán Loera’s crime and violence has come to an end,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.
For others, vindication: “There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting,” said Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “Those people are wrong.”
Some spoke of heroism: “Today’s verdict,” said U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, “sends an unmistakable message to transnational criminals: You cannot hide, you are not beyond our reach, and we will find you and bring you to face justice.”
Others expressed a sense of relief: “As was clear to the jury, Guzmán Loera’s massive, multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise was responsible for flooding the streets of the United States with hundreds of tons of cocaine as well as enormous quantities of other dangerous drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine,” according to acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.
These officials all offered variations on a popular drug war narrative: an all-controlling kingpin builds a criminal empire, leaving death and destruction in his wake. Law enforcement tracks, arrests, and incarcerates him—and, in the case of El Chapo, rearrests and reincarcerates him after he escapes—and then convicts him. The public embraces this story, watching it over and over, first as news on CNN and then as fiction on Netflix. It is simple and understandable, and it helps us sleep at night. It is also false.
The obsession with El Chapo and his exploits, as well as those of his associates and his cartel, reflects an outdated view of the drug trade. The idea that this trade is dominated by vertically integrated organizations, each run by a single mastermind such as El Chapo, is a myth—and a dangerous one, in that it may undermine international efforts to slow drug trafficking and combat the violence of criminal groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel.
Take the case of fentanyl. The same day that El Chapo was sentenced, anywhere between 60 and 100 people in the United States likely died from overdosing on fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid made in China and often trafficked through Mexico by the country’s myriad criminal organizations. In 2018, fentanyl accounted for roughly 30,000 overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fentanyl was barely a blip in the U.S. drug market in 2013. Today, it is replacing heroin. Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice told me recently that there are two major criminal groups—El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG)—behind the surge in fentanyl. But a deeper look reveals a wide variety of American, Chinese, Dominican, Indian, and Mexican groups supplying the U.S. market, some that conduct almost all of their business online from within the United States. El Chapo and his vaunted Sinaloa Cartel are not responsible for this transformation. And as my organization, InSight Crime, showed in a recent report on Mexico’s role in the fentanyl trade, published with support from the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, removing cartels and their kingpins will do little to slow this transformation.
The reason is that the rise of synthetic drugs is changing the structure of the illegal drug market. Mexican cartels were built for trafficking drugs such as cocaine and heroin. These drugs, which are labor-intensive to produce and most profitable when trafficked at scale, tend to favor the emergence of large, centralized criminal syndicates that can coordinate vast transnational networks of production and distribution.
Synthetics, by contrast, can be cheaply produced from precursor chemicals and are potent enough to be profitable even when produced on a small scale: one fentanyl analogue, carfentanil, is roughly 100 times stronger than fentanyl, which is itself some 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. In our report, we liken the synthetic drug trade to the microchip industry, in which continued innovation allows for ever greater potency to be fit in ever smaller packages.
Because fentanyl is so potent, it can move in small consignments. A large part of the fentanyl produced in China is sent directly to the United States through the mail. Even many precursor chemicals, also produced in China, go directly to the United States. According to numerous U.S. officials and health experts we consulted, this direct-from-China trade may account for the bulk of the fentanyl in the U.S. market. Once the drugs reach the United States, small traders peddle the drugs over the dark web, encrypted messaging services, or social media, cutting out the cartels entirely.
Some fentanyl and fentanyl precursors do move through Mexico. But they go through many hands on their way to market. Mexico’s two main Pacific ports, Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo, service several masters, including various criminal groups that have deep contacts in Asia from their time producing other synthetic drugs, particularly methamphetamine. The precursors make their way to laboratories in Sinaloa but also Mexico City and points north, such as Baja California, where they are used to make fentanyl that is then trafficked in bulk across the U.S. border. There is also a possibility that some of the precursors may enter the United States, then cross to Mexico for production on the Mexican side of the border, as one recent case illustrated.
There are, quite simply, a variety of organizations at work. An increasing amount of the fentanyl coming via Mexico, for example, is camouflaged as oxycodone and other prescription pills, since the sellers do not want the users to know they are taking the deadliest drug on the market. And although the global market for counterfeit pharmaceuticals is huge, it has never been the purview of groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel—it is more likely the domain of smaller organizations in border areas such as Tijuana, which service the wildly overpriced U.S. market.
Fentanyl, with its potency and its relative ease of manufacture and transport, offers an extreme example of the forces atomizing the drug trade, but markets for legacy drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine have also fragmented, in part because of the capture and prosecution of people such as El Chapo. But although security forces in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere have played a role in this atomization of the drug trade, arresting capos is different from dismantling criminal organizations.
Large criminal groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are still powerful, and they still serve an important purpose in the drug trade. They assume a good portion of the risk of transporting drugs in bulk and selling them wholesale to smaller networks engaged in street-level distribution. In the case of fentanyl, for instance, Mexican cartels sell to Dominican groups that control much of the fentanyl and heroin market in the United States. Taking them down should be part of any counternarcotics strategy.
But the days of the monolithic, hegemonic criminal groups with all-powerful leaders are over. For U.S. policymakers, it may be overkill to direct the resources of six federal law enforcement agencies toward dismantling these groups, especially in the era of synthetic drugs.
Dealing with illicit drugs requires a holistic approach dedicated to understanding the complexity of drug use and its ripple effects on everything from the rule of law to democracy. During the El Chapo trial, for instance, prosecutors and the judge spent significant energy suppressing testimony about the systemic failures of Mexican society—grinding poverty, endemic corruption, a fraudulent democracy—that enable large criminal groups to flourish and even penetrate the government institutions set up to combat them. Although some allegations, such as the claim that former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took a $100 million bribe from El Chapo, bordered on the absurd, the excluded testimony highlighted problems in Mexican society that stretch far beyond the cartels and will certainly outlive them.
El Chapo was a powerful and wealthy drug lord, and bringing him down was an undeniably important step in curtailing the reach of Mexico’s cartels. But burnishing his status as a kingpin perpetuates a false narrative that destroying him—and those like him—will solve the problems posed by the drug trade. In fact, convicting one drug lord is more akin to plucking a single bee from the hive.