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Fentanyl Road: How deadly drug goes from China to Mexico, ends up in US

The DOJ announced last week the first prosecutions against Chinese chemical companies and nationals for the trafficking of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said of the prosecution, “These companies and individuals are alleged to have knowingly supplied drug traffickers in the United States and Mexico with the ingredients and scientific know-how needed to make fentanyl.”

The U.S. has seen nearly 100,000 deadly overdoses from fentanyl – a powerful opioid 50 times stronger than heroin – in a little more than a year. Although the substance is usually found on the streets of almost every American city, mixed with heroin and inside counterfeit Oxycontin and Xanax pills, fentanyl is produced far from the U.S.


1 million fentanyl pills seized in SoCal. Largest DEA fentanyl bust in CA history.

This photo shows the largest seizure of fentanyl pills in California history. (Drug Enforcement Administration/File)

This is a step-by-step roadmap detailing the route of fentanyl from China-based factories to the streets of the U.S., following the increase in prices and revenue, starting from a single precursor valued at $200 in China to more than $1 million in revenue on the streets of the U.S.

Wuhan, China

The order comes out of Sinaloa, Mexico, through a private Telegram chat group. On the other side of the messaging app is an employee of a Chinese company based out of Wuhan, which states it sells “chemical products for industrial cleaning services,” according to recent research published by financial crime risk think tank Elliptic. 

The offer is to ship one kilogram of a single precursor called 4-Piperidone, a chemical whose only use is to manufacture fentanyl. 

Wuhan, China

Wuhan, China. (Getty Images/File)

“The rest of the precursors can be easily found or obtained in Mexico or anywhere in the U.S. The important one is the piperidone,” a high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel operative told Fox News Digital.

The price invested per kilogram at this point is $200.

Mazatlan, Mexico

Precursors and ready-made fentanyl is shipped through two Mexican ports at the Pacific Ocean: Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan, heavily controlled by the ruthless Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG for its Spanish acronym), and the Mazatlan port in Sinaloa, controlled by the eponymous cartel.

The precursors are transported by commercial shipping vessels from China to Mexico among hundreds of thousands of other imported products, making it almost impossible for Mexican authorities to find illegal products hidden in the containers, according to Manelich Castilla, former commissioner of Mexico’s Federal Police.

Sinaloa cartel

Sons of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman have denied involvement in the production or trafficking of fentanyl. (AP Photo/Martin Urista/File)


“To transport fentanyl, you don’t need big shipments. Now you can hide a very profitable load inside a trailer container, and it would be almost impossible to find,” Castilla told Fox News Digital.

Once on Mexican soil, the precursors are transported to small, temporary laboratories set up in luxury residential apartments in Culiacan, Sinaloa’s capital, and cradle of the cartel.

“Here, you only need a couple of hours to manufacture over 100 thousand fentanyl pills,” the cartel operative said.

The Sinaloa Cartel’s most popular products are the counterfeit “M30” pills, small, blue-colored fentanyl pills made to look like Oxycontin pills.

The cost of production for these pills is around $.50 and are sold individually in the U.S. for around $5 to $15.

At this point, a kilogram of already pressed fentanyl pills rises up to more than $3,500.

DEA seizes drugs

These drugs were seized from a tunnel under the Otay Mesa area of San Diego, California, in March 2020. (U.S. Border Patrol via AP)

San Diego, California

Once the fentanyl is turned into pills or mixed with bricks of heroin, the product is packed to be transported to cities along the Mexico-U.S. border on cargo trucks. The Sinaloa Cartel shipments work as a pool of investors, transporting different products for different drug traffickers within the same organization, according to the cartel operative.

“A full truck carries drugs from different individuals. Each one of us pays an amount, depending on the quantity. It is usually $1,500 per kilogram, but it includes the bribes to the Mexican authorities to get through checkpoints and [elsewhere],” the operative said. 

From a Mexican border city like Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez (across from El Paso, Texas), the fentanyl gets across the border on private vehicles through a regular port of entry. 

Mexico-San Diego border crossing

Cars line up at the San Ysidro crossing port to cross from Tijuana in Mexico to San Diego in the U.S. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images/File)

“We pay each mule around $500 per ride, however, much product fits on their car. We provide the car, and we tell them where to unload on the other side of the border,” the cartel member said.

CBP seized more than 17,000 pounds of fentanyl from October 2022 through April 2023, as compared with about 6,600 pounds from October 2021 through April 2022, according to official figures.

The price at this point jumps to around $25,000 per kilogram.

New York City

The big price spike happens at what U.S. authorities call “the mills,” small houses or apartments set up in suburban cities away from where the drug will be eventually sold in the streets, according to U.S. authorities.

Here is where the pills get packed into smaller quantities or the heroin mixed with fentanyl gets mixed with other substances for profit.

Bronx fentanyl bust

Authorities display $7 million worth of fentanyl allegedly found in a New York City apartment unit. (Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for New York City/File)

“At the point where the pills reach the local dealers, we have no control. They buy the wholesale stuff from us, and they cut it with whichever they can or want, and then they make their cut from it,” the operative said.

From these “mills,” the small, individual packages with pills or heroin get distributed little by little to the bigger hubs, cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland or other major cities. The drug starts reaching the streets and is sold at retail price.

The final price at this point is more than $1 million.

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