In Search of a Silver Bullet: Reducing the Supply of Synthetic Drugs to the U.S.
By Jim Crotty
Much of my professional career has been spent analyzing drug trafficking trends and U.S. counterdrug efforts. Never has the situation seemed so bleak. Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 105,700 Americans died from drug overdoses in the past year, a five percent increase from the year before, and the highest number on record. Of these, nearly 90 percent were attributed to synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine, which dominate the U.S. drug market and are now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-45 – more than car accidents, firearms, and Covid-19.
As the drug crisis worsens, one of the questions I’m frequently asked – aside from my views on marijuana legalization, an issue that frankly doesn’t need any more commentary – is “what is the one thing that could be done right now to help reduce the supply of drugs to the U.S.” I’m already on record as saying there is no “silver bullet” solution to such a complex problem, and that any real, lasting change requires a commitment to more long-term strategies like demand reduction. But if forced to choose just one measure to immediately disrupt the supply of synthetic drugs to the U.S., it would be this: rapidly expand bilateral efforts to identify and destroy clandestine drug laboratories in Mexico. Why labs?
To answer this question, it’s important to understand the supply chain for synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine to determine the most practical place to intervene. Although it has evolved over time, the supply chain for synthetic drugs is now well-established. Precursor chemicals, sourced primarily from China, are shipped to Mexican ports, where they are retrieved by Mexican cartels and delivered to clandestine drug labs around the country. The finished product is then transported overland across the U.S.-Mexico border, overwhelmingly through legal points of entry, for onward distribution to drug trafficking hubs throughout the U.S.
There are plenty of “weak links” along the supply chain. China could prohibit companies from producing and exporting precursor chemicals used to manufacture synthetic drugs. Shipping companies could maintain better records and provide advanced electronic data to relevant authorities to identify suspicious shipments. Mexican security forces could exercise greater control over its ports. The U.S. could exercise greater control over its southern border. The U.S. and Mexico could do more to dismantle the drug trafficking organizations operating in their countries. The list goes on and on.
But for every one of these interventions, there are significant – and in some cases, prohibitive – impediments. Despite considerable pressure from the U.S., China has so far failed to control many of the precursor chemicals used to manufacture synthetic drugs, and it seems likely that geopolitics will continue to trump counterdrug cooperation for the foreseeable future. Even if they did, the Chinese chemical industry is so large and diffuse, it’s unlikely Chinese authorities could meaningfully enforce the new regulations.
Shipping companies are already required to submit bills of lading and other data about their cargo, but in many cases, this information is fabricated, and Mexican cartels have already started to adapt to more stringent controls by switching to pre-precursor chemicals, which often have legitimate uses and can’t be controlled. And while the government of Mexico has tried to wrest control of their ports from the cartels and their criminal patronage networks, the threat of violence and lure of money is often too great, and the ports themselves too sprawling to effectively police. Meanwhile, the U.S. has famously tried to secure its southern border with an expanded wall, the National Guard, and modern technology, with little success. Finally, despite suffering some major losses, Mexican cartels have proven extremely resilient.
Targeting drug labs has several key advantages over these interventions. First, there aren’t that many of them (compared, for example, to the large number of chemical companies in China or drug traffickers operating in the U.S and Mexico). Second, they’re relatively easy to find (compared, for example, to trying to identify shipments of precursor chemicals or synthetic drugs transiting the globe). And finally, it’s devastatingly effective (destroying labs has an immediate impact on drug supply).
Of course, this approach is not without challenges. Clandestine drug labs may be easier to locate than a single container on the high seas or a few kilograms of fentanyl hidden in car (hence “clandestine”), but they are still difficult to find. Although some are quite large and manufacture drugs on an industrial scale, others have a relatively small footprint and are cleverly concealed to avoid detection. Although problematic, this can often be overcome with good human intelligence; persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and other advanced technology and innovative investigative techniques (e.g., using thermal imaging devices used to detect unusual heat signatures from indoor marijuana grows).
But the real issue with targeting drug labs is not a lack of intelligence, but a lack of cooperation. Relations between the U.S. and Mexico were badly frayed after the arrest of former Mexican Minister of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos in October 2020 and have yet to recover. In years past, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) regularly partnered with elite units from Mexican law enforcement and military to identify and destroy clandestine drug labs. In 2018, for example, DEA and Mexican security forces destroyed over fifty metric tons of methamphetamine and precursor chemicals from an underground mega-lab tucked away in the mountains of Sinaloa. The U.S. and Mexico are currently a long way from that kind of vigorous security cooperation, but examples like this show what’s possible.
While the U.S. and Mexico have taken some modest steps to improve bilateral relations, for example, by establishing a new U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Heath, and Safe Communities, a serious distrust remains between the two countries, especially with respect to counterdrug efforts. As the U.S. seeks to reengage with Mexico on a range of security concerns, one of the top priorities should be to resume lab destruction operations. While these operations are by no means a panacea, targeting drug labs is one of the most low-cost, high-impact options to immediately stem the flow of deadly