To halt fentanyl, U.S. says it ‘infiltrated’ Sinaloa cartel : NPR
US Department of Justice
US officials say they have identified and infiltrated the Mexican drug organization largely responsible for the fentanyl crisis that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.
In a sweeping series of indictments targeting two dozen leaders and kingpins, the Justice Department has blamed much of the killing on the Chapitos network, a faction of the Sinaloa drug cartel.
“Over the past year and a half, the DEA has proactively infiltrated the Sinaloa Cartel and the Chapitos network, gained unprecedented access to the highest levels of the organization, and followed them around the world,” Anne Milgram, head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, he said in a statement.
Officials say the Chapitos faction is led by the four sons of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is currently serving a life sentence in a US prison in Florida after being convicted in 2019 of multiple drug and murder conspiracy charges.
According to federal officials and drug policy experts, the Chapitos have aggressively shifted their operations to focus on fentanyl.
“While El Chapo’s [era of] Sinaloa was about cocaine and meth, and to some extent heroin, Chapitos’ Sinaloa is about fentanyl,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drug trafficking expert at the Brookings Institution. .
The Chapitos now allegedly operate a sophisticated network of fentanyl smugglers, money launderers and drug operatives in countries around the world.
In court filings, the Department of Justice and the DEA detailed private meetings and deals regarding fentanyl over the past two years involving key leaders and operators in Mexico as well as the United States, the Austria and other countries.
“The indictments of Chapitos in their detail and the undercover work that was required is a major achievement,” said Felbab-Brown, who said the information suggests “high-level infiltration” of the cartel from the United States .
It’s unclear how the intelligence was gathered, but one expert on Mexican cartels told NPR that the United States appears to have at least one paid informant inside the gang.
“I think that at a high level they have a paid informer and probably undercover [agents] in the periphery [of the Chapitos network] around the world,” said Ioan Grillo, a Mexico City-based journalist whose books focus on Mexican cartels.
A look at one of the most dangerous drug cartels in the world
The charges were made public last week details, among other things, what authorities say is the Chapitos network’s sophisticated pipeline of fentanyl precursor chemicals from China.
The documents also describe extensive gun-to-fentanyl deals involving the smuggling of military-grade weapons from the United States
US Department of Justice
In December 2022, according to the Department of Justice, a Sinaloa operator in Vienna, Austria, attempted to arrange an exchange of fentanyl for weapons that included 500 AR-15 rifles, along with hundreds of launchers grenades and rocket-propelled grenades.
American officials say that in addition to thousands of fentanyl deaths in American communities, the Chapitos network is responsible for a campaign of violence and terror inside Mexico.
“They often torture and kill their victims,” said US Attorney General Merrick Garland during a press conference when the charges were announced. “They gave some of their victims, dead and alive, to tigers belonging to the Chapitos.”
US officials say cartel leaders know the deadly danger fentanyl poses to Americans struggling with opioid addiction and simply don’t care that so many people are being poisoned.
During a meeting in May 2022, according to court documents, a Chapitos leader named Ovidio Guzmán López allegedly acknowledged that fentanyl is lethal if the dosage is just “a little off.”
“Indeed, multiple ‘chefs’ used by the cartel to manufacture its fentanyl in labs controlled by Chapitos in Mexico have died from testing the product,” the federal indictment states.
“These people are absolute creeps, these Chapitos kids,” said Sam Quinones, a journalist who has written extensively about cartels and the fentanyl crisis. “I think that these drug lords who were previously untouchable for some kind of justice is a very good thing.”
These charges come as the Biden administration faces growing political pressure to stop, or significantly reduce, the flow of fentanyl into the United States.
The Justice Department is offering tens of millions of dollars in rewards as part of the effort to arrest the gang’s leaders.
US Department of Justice
As US ‘expands battlespace’ against Mexican cartels, drug policy experts are skeptical
Drug policy experts interviewed by NPR agreed that the capture and prosecution of members of the Chapitos network would bring a measure of accountability for the devastating damage caused by fentanyl.
Street drugs are now the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 45, according to US officials.
But experts have also expressed skepticism about how effective this effort will be in reducing fentanyl smuggling and preventing overdose deaths.
A major complication is that Mexican officials are increasingly willing to join the US effort by aggressively targeting the Sinaloa cartel inside their country.
US officials describe these charges as part of a global effort to “expand the battle space” against drug gangs, comparing the campaign to previous fights against terrorist groups.
But on Monday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador blasted the United States for spying on the Sinaloa cartel without first getting his government’s permission. He described the DEA’s infiltration of the Chapitos network as part of a wider campaign of unauthorized espionage by US agents inside his country.
“It is an abusive and arrogant interference, which should not be accepted under any circumstances,” said López Obrador.
Experts say fentanyl is here to stay
As the diplomatic rift over the fentanyl crisis widens, experts have also questioned the US claim that dismantling the Chapitos network will reduce overdose deaths in American communities.
“I’m pretty pessimistic,” said Jonathan Caulkins, who studies drug trafficking at Carnegie Mellon University. “In the best of all possible worlds, we literally shrink the supply. That’s very hard to do. It was very hard to do when it was cocaine and heroin, and for many reasons it’s much harder with synthetic.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be made cheaply and easily from industrial chemicals widely available from producers in China and India. It is immensely profitable.
Caulkins and others told NPR that if the Chapitos are caught or thrown out of the fentanyl trade, other factions of the Sinaloa Cartel or other major drug gangs like the Jalisco New Generation Cartel will quickly take over. the slack.
“The war on drugs has not worked,” said Grillo, who noted that many other kingpins, including “El Chapo,” have already been arrested. “We have more drug overdose deaths than ever before, more than ever we’ve had more violence between drug cartels in Mexico.”
But like others interviewed for this story, Grillo said bringing the Chapitos to justice is a laudable goal even if it doesn’t stop the flow of fentanyl.
“They have been involved in multiple murders and intimidation,” he said. “They are trafficking fentanyl, which has led to the deaths of thousands and thousands of Americans. So they are bad people, and to have impunity is not good.”