NEW YORK – Coronavirus is a punch for the illegal drug trade, crippling economies, closing borders and cutting supply chains in China that traffickers rely on for chemicals to make profitable drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl.
One of the main suppliers that has closed is in Wuhan, the epicenter of the global epidemic.
Interviews with the Associated Press with close to two dozen law enforcement officials and trafficking experts revealed that Mexican and Colombian cartels are still in the line of trade, as evidenced by recent drug seizures, but the blockages that have transformed cities into ghost towns disrupting everything from production to transport to sales.
Along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico, through which the vast majority of illicit drugs pass, the normally trafficked vehicle traffic that smugglers use for cover has slowed. Bars, nightclubs and motels across the country, which are usually fertile markets for drug traffickers, have closed. And the prices of shortage drugs have soared to record levels.
“They are facing a supply problem and a demand problem,” said Alejandro Hope, security analyst and former official at CISEN, the Mexican intelligence agency. “Once you put them on the market, who are you going to sell to?”
Almost all illicit drugs have been affected, with disruptions in the supply chain at the wholesale and retail level. Traffickers store narcotics and money along the border, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration even reports a decrease in money laundering and online drug sales on the so-called dark web.
“Cartel sponsors are scrambling,” said Phil Jordan, former director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center.
Cocaine prices have increased by 20% or more in some cities. Heroin has become more difficult to find in Denver and Chicago, while supplies of fentanyl are shrinking in Houston and Philadelphia. In Los Angeles, the price of methamphetamine has more than doubled in recent weeks to $ 1,800 a pound.
“You have shortages but also greedy bastards who see an opportunity to earn more money,” said Jack Riley, the former DEA deputy administrator. “The bad guys frequently use situations that affect national conscience to raise prices.”
Synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl were among the hardest hit, largely because they rely on chemical precursors that Mexican cartels import from China, cook drugs on an industrial scale, and then ship to United States.
“This is something we would use as a lesson learned for us,” DEA chief Uttam Dhillon told AP. “If the disruption is so significant, we must continue to work with our global partners to ensure that, once the pandemic is over, these chemical precursors will not be available to these drug trafficking organizations.”
The cartels are moving further and further away from drugs that require planting and growing seasons, such as heroin and marijuana, in favor of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which can be baked 24/7. 7 throughout the year, are up to 50 times more potent than heroin and produce a greater profit margin.
Although some clandestine laboratories that manufacture fentanyl from scratch have arisen sporadically in Mexico, cartels still rely heavily on Chinese companies to obtain the precursors.
Huge amounts of these mail-order components can be attributed to a single state-subsidized business in Wuhan that closed after the epidemic earlier this year, said Louise Shelley, director of Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, which monitors Chinese websites selling fentanyl.
“The quarantine of Wuhan and all the chaos in it has definitively affected the fentanyl trade, particularly between China and Mexico,” said Ben Westhoff, author of “Fentanyl, Inc.”.
“The main reason why China has been the main supplier is the main reason why China is the supplier of everything – it does it cheaply,” said Westhoff. “There was really no financial incentive for the cartels to develop this themselves.”
But costs have gone up and, as in many legitimate industries, the coronavirus is causing change.
Prices announced across China for precursors of fentanyl, methamphetamine and cutting agents have increased between 25% and 400% since late February, said Logan Pauley, an analyst at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a non-profit organization Washington-based security research profit. So, even as drug precursor factories in China slowly reopen after the worst of the coronavirus crisis, some cartels have taken steps to reduce their dependence on foreign suppliers by using scientists to manufacture their own chemical precursors.
“Because of the coronavirus, they’re starting to do it internally,” added Westhoff.
Some Chinese companies that once pushed forerunners are now advertising drugs like hydroxychloroquine, which President Donald Trump has promoted as a potential treatment for COVID-19, as well as personal protective equipment such as face masks and hand sanitizers.
Meanwhile, the erased situation on the US-Mexico border looks like a stalled chess match where no one, especially the traffickers, want to make a mistake, said Kyle Williamson, special agent in charge of the division. DEA field work in El Paso.
“They are currently on hiatus,” said Williamson. “They don’t want to be sloppy and take a lot of risks.”
Some Mexican drug cartels are even withholding existing methamphetamine supplies to manipulate the market, recognizing that “no good crisis should be wasted,” said Joseph Brown, the US lawyer in the eastern district of Texas.
“Some cartels have directly ordered members of their organization that anyone caught selling methamphetamine during this time be killed,” said Brown, whose sprawling jurisdiction extends from the suburbs of Dallas to Beaumont.
Admittedly, narcotics continue to enter the United States, as evidenced by a bust last month in which nearly $ 30 million in street drugs were seized in a new smuggling tunnel connecting a warehouse in Tijuana south of San Diego. Shelley said the bust was remarkable in that only about 2 pounds of fentanyl was recovered, “much less than usual shipments”.
Trump announced earlier this month that Navy ships are being moved to Venezuela as part of an attempt to strengthen drug operations in the Caribbean following an American indictment against Nicolás Maduro.
But the pandemic has also limited the effectiveness of law enforcement, as departments face investigators working from a distance, falling ill and navigating a new landscape in which their own activities have become more visible. In Los Angeles County, half of the drug detectives have been assigned to patrol, which could jeopardize long-term investigations.
However, Captain Chris Sandoval, who oversees special investigations for the Houston-based Harris County Sheriff’s office, said there was a new saying among his detectives: “Even drug dealers can’t hide coronavirus. “