Understanding the Flow of Fentanyl
Terrorism poses a strong threat to civilians in the United States, but drugs kill and harm more people annually in America than terrorists do, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Homeland Threat Assessment 2024.
The drugs that DHS is tracking are increasingly lethal because traffickers in Mexico and the United States use various additives—like xylazine and fentanyl—when they counterfeit prescription pills. Preliminary data from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention indicates that more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2022; synthetic opioids—which include fentanyl and tramadol—accounted for roughly 75 percent of overdoses during the past year.
“Domestic drug traffickers have gained more influence over the composition of fentanyl pills available in the United States and have distributed potentially more deadly mixtures of the drug to both witting and unwitting users,” according to the DHS assessment. “U.S. law enforcement seizures of pill presses purchased online have increased, suggesting these U.S.‑based traffickers are pressing a highly toxic combination of drugs into different types of pills.”
How does fentanyl flow around the world? In cases studied by the U.S. Drug Enforcement (DEA), various fentanyl flows worked like this:
China to Canada
• In China, fentanyl in powder form, unregistered pill presses, stamps, or dies, is sent via mail to Canada.
• Powder fentanyls are processed and mixed with heroin, sold as heroin, or pressed into pills and sold in the Canadian drug market.
• Some fentanyl products are smuggled from Canada into the United States for sale on a smaller scale.
• In some cases, precursors for manufacturing fentanyls are shipped via mail from China to Canada and then used to clandestinely manufacture fentanyl.
China to Mexico to the United States
• In China, fentanyl in powder form, unregistered pill presses, stamps, or dies, is sent via mail to Mexico.
• Powder fentanyls are cut and diluted for further smuggling or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills for sale in the United States.
• Precursors may be used to clandestinely manufacture fentanyls in Mexico and then send them to the United States.
China to India to Mexico
• In China, fentanyl in powder form, unregistered pill presses, stamps, or dies, is sent via mail to India.
• The powder fentanyls are cut and diluted for further smuggling to Mexico, or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills.
• Precursors for manufacturing fentanyls in India may also be shipped back to China via mail services.
• Precursors may also be used to clandestinely manufacture fentanyls in India.
China to the United States
• In China, fentanyl in powder form, unregistered pill presses, stamps, or dies, is sent via mail to the United States.
• Powder fentanyls are then processed and mixed with heroin, sold as heroin, or pressed into pills and sold in the U.S. drug market.
• Precursors are likely smuggled across the southwest U.S. border into Mexico to manufacture fentanyls.
In June 2023, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the arrest of two individuals and charges against China-based companies for crimes related to fentanyl production, distribution, and sales resulting from precursor chemicals—the first charges of their kind.
“During these investigations, the DEA seized more than 200 kilograms of fentanyl-related precursor chemicals, a quantity that could contain enough deadly doses to kill 25 million Americans,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) press release.
Unsealed indictments allege that one of the companies, Amarvel Biotech, openly advertised shipments of fentanyl precursor chemicals to the United States and Mexico.
“Through its website and a host of other storefront sites, Amarvel Biotech has targeted precursor chemical customers in Mexico, including by advertising fentanyl precursors as a ‘Mexico hot sale;’ guaranteeing ‘100 percent stealth shipping’ abroad; and posting to its websites documentation of Amarvel Biotech shipping chemicals to Culiacan, Mexico, the home city of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the dominant drug trafficking organizations in the Western Hemisphere and which is largely responsible for the massive influx of fentanyl into the United States in recent years,” the DOJ said.