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Exclusive: How the Sinaloa cartel makes fentanyl and ships it to the United States.

Univision's investigative team visited a clandestine laboratory in Mexico where fentanyl mixed with opium is produced, and interviewed distributors who ship the potential lethal drug to the United States.(Leer, y ver video, en español)
24 Feb 2020 – 07:30 PM EST
Fentanyl cooks prepare two kilograms of synthetic drugs in Sinaloa. Crédito: Peniley Ramirez / Univision

SINALOA, Mexico – The clandestine laboratories that produce fentanyl, the deadliest drug on the market today, are located in farms near towns where life appears to be normal.

It's easy to find out who's in charge. It's always the guy with the walkie-talkie on his belt. The reports transmitted on those radios strictly control the clandestine operations.

If there's an alert, the shipments are suspended, the fires under pots where the drug is prepared are extinguished, the tools are hidden in a safe place and the workers sit quietly watching television until the alert is over. The workers then calmly return to their jobs.

Each illegal laboratory in this region produces an average of about 20,000 doses of fentanyl each week for the U.S. market, according to one of the people in charge, who agreed to show Univision the process for preparing the drug, packing it and shipping it to the United States. They are known as “cooks.”

"It feels bad, but..."

They are aware they are preparing drugs that can kill many consumers, but to them it's a business issue of offer and demand. “Well yes, it feels bad, but no one forces them. If they want to consume it, that's their business.”

As he spoke, on condition of anonymity, the radio broadcast alerts that a military convoy was seen approaching a town, that a helicopter or a drone flew overhead, or that a cow had broken out of a corral. They have rifles and pistols, always kept nearby in case of what they say might be “some emergency.”

The cook and his helpers proudly boast that anyone approaching, be it government agents or simple visitors, would never escape the notice of the vast network of lookouts that covers all of the state of Sinaloa.

The so-called clandestine lab is in fact little more than the corner of a farm, with dry grass underfoot, an open space under some trees, with a black nylon for a roof. A couple of steps beyond that there are some dead marijuana plants, from the time when the cook went into that business. Now, he said, he prefers to prepare fentanyl, which involves a highly toxic preparation process but brings him an average of $2,000 per week.

The chief cook is a thin young man, with a thin mustache. His helpers are two others who can't be more than 20 years old. The three dress meticulously with special protective overalls and wear gas masks. They said they used to do their work inside a house, but one of their friends' “lungs rotted” and afterward they decided to prepare the fentanyl outside, “to let the smoke and the substances escape.”

They use U.S. chemicals, with the same brand and packaging that Univision had seen some weeks earlier during a visit to the Pharmacy Department at the Chemistry School of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known as the UNAM.

Acetone, acetate, chlorine, the cook pointed out as he started to prepare his mix. But the star ingredient in the product, he adds, is a small unmarked packet, wrapped in plastic, of what he called “fentanyl precursor,” a base substance used to prepare a powder that will later be mixed with others and can be smoked or sold as ampules or pills.

Precursor chemicals

“The chemicals come from China or Germany,” he said, “but, the 100 percent pure, it's German.” Asked how they manage to get it into Mexico, the traffickers say with the help of airline employees, including stewards and stewardesses.

Later, he says that precursors are already being produced in Sinaloa, and that they use the airlines less frequently.

The Mexican government seized a drug laboratory in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, in April of 2019. The cook there claimed that precursor chemicals were already being produced there and in other parts of the region.

The cook started mixing his ingredients, first with opium gum, then with other chemicals. They are stirred in a pot for more than an hour in the outdoor kitchen, over a gas burner. Then it is poured over a cloth and squeezed “to make it release all the crap.”

After less than two hours, they are finished and they leave the product to dry overnight. Later, the cooks explains, it will have to be finely ground.

The last stage of the process starts the next day. The product is wrapped in plastic, sealed with light brown tape and hidden in the secret compartment of a car. Later, in Culiacan, a distributor who sends a similar product to Boston, Chicago and New York shows the “camouflage” the package needs to pass the U.,S. border. It's a layer of detergent, coffee and automotive oil to hide the fentanyl's smell.

“Generally, this package will cross the border aboard a vehicle, and so it should smell like a vehicle and a vehicle usually smells of grease, it has grease all over,” says the distributor.

The fentanyl boom means that distributors can afford to use small airplanes to deliver hundreds of of kilograms of powder or pills to the border region. The distributor said each shipment can bring in between $150,000 and $180,000, but the business is risky.

The first risk is that he has to negotiate with U.S. clients, even though he does not speak English, who can suddenly stop answering their phones and stiff him for the money. “If they don't pay me, I have to spend money to find someone who goes to search for them,” he said.

The producers as well as the opium growers say it's the distributors who are the “drug traffickers.” They claim they are not part of the Sinaloa Cartel, saying they only sell their merchandise and follow the cartel's rules. “But if there's a war, for example, I am not required to go fight. I am independent,” the distributor said as we drove around Culiacan.

Each part of the supply chain has its specialists, he explained. The fleteros, or shippers, are in charge of the transportation, taking the merchandise to the border and across into the United States.

After he's been paid, others “bring the money here to me” for a commission. The distributor said he does not know if the money arrives in Mexico in cash or through currency exchange houses, but it is delivered to him in cash. He uses some of it to buy more merchandise and deposits some of it in banks “with some accounts and businesses that I have.”

In his business, the rules are informal, but strict. If a shipper looses a shipment to law enforcement, all he has to do is provide the distributor with a document confirming the seizure. “I lose my investment,” the distributor explained.

The Sinaloa Cartel's only rule, according to everyone interviewed for this story, is that the fentanyl cannot be sold in the state. They said the cartel “doesn't want problems or deaths from overdoses” in its territory. “They kidnap you, they kill you and they prune your head. They are very sensitive about that drug here,” said one distributor of pills.

The head of the laboratory confirmed the unwritten rule. He said he only attended grammar school, and learned to cook by first working as a helper. A Colombian man arrived in Sinaloa in 2015 to teach them how to prepare the fentanyl.

Some of cooks who were experts in producing heroin, he said, paid $50,000 for “the recipe.” They then trained their helpers. Now, years later, he claims there are “hundreds of fentanyl cooks” in the region controlled by the cartel. And their modifications to the formula tests in recent months, including the mix of fentanyl with opium gum, they are getting more and more requests from the United Sttaes.

The distributor of pills, who like all the others agreed to talk if he remained anonymous, said overall production has expanded in the past two years due to the huge profit margins that fentanyl offers. “I get it here for 80 cents, 70 cents per pill. I get it and sell it over there for about $3. Pay attention: If I invest $1,000, I can make $3,000 just like that, from one day to another, in two days.”

The cook confessed that he's been afraid of going to jail or being poisoned, and that at times he has breathed the smoke of his mixes and spent the night awake, feeling that he was dying and taking intervenous liquids. But he does not plan to change his business.

“There are a lot of dangers here, you can even die. But you make a lot. In another business, you earn only misery.”

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