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Home Synthetic Drugs Mexico Fentanyl Production Migrates North as Chapitos Death Threats Loom

Mexico Fentanyl Production Migrates North as Chapitos Death Threats Loom

Huddled in the back of a fruit and vegetable stand in the south of Culiacán, the hitman scanned the area as he described the order he received regarding fentanyl manufacturers operating on the outskirts of Sinaloa’s capital city.

He said they instructed us to eliminate anyone who is still making fentanyl. Only a small group of people near the leaders are allowed to make it.

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Hiding in the back of a fruit and vegetable stand in the southern part of Culiacán, the hired killer looked around the area and talked about the directive he got about fentanyl producers working on the edges of Sinaloa’s main city.

“We were instructed to eliminate anyone still making fentanyl,” he said. “Only a few people close to the leaders are allowed to produce it.”

That directive came from the Chapitos faction of the influential Sinaloa Cartel, led by the sons of the former leader, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as “El Chapo.” The Chapitos have called on various groups of hitmen, known as “patrullas,” or patrols, to assassinate anyone still producing fentanyl.

The lethal man-made opioid is at the center of tensions between the US and Mexican governments, as it causes a record number of drug overdose deaths in the United States. US prosecutors have focused on pursuing members of the Sinaloa Cartel, which the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) claims is one of two main groups responsible for trafficking large amounts of the drug.

An Extradition (and a Fentanyl Prohibition) as Mexico Tries a Counterdrug Reset

Since the Chapitos first demanded a stop to all fentanyl production around mid-2023, the hired killer said his group has killed many cooks who disobeyed the order in Sinaloa, which has become one of Mexico’s main locations for making synthetic drugs after years of being a center for cultivating marijuana and poppy plants.

However, while the Chapitos seem to have made some effort to stop fentanyl production in Sinaloa to avoid increased pressure from the government, growing evidence indicates that they and other parts of the group have simply moved their operations north to be nearer to the US-Mexico border.

“We haven’t killed anybody here in Culiacán for the last three months,” said the hired killer, suggesting the few cooks remaining in the city may be obeying the order, while others have decided to leave.

Northern Migration

The hired killer noticed an increase in work towards the end of 2023, around the time a key member of the Chapitos, Ovidio Guzmán López, was sent to the United States to face drug trafficking charges.

Months after Ovidio’s arrest in January 2023, a series of signs began announcing the Chapitos’ fentanyl ban in Culiacán, which was later extended to the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, and Sonora.

Four individuals, all working in different roles for criminal groups linked to factions of the Sinaloa Cartel, said the ban has led labs to primarily move to Sonora and Baja California.

“They’re offering us 20,000 pesos per kilo [approximately $1,200] to make fentanyl in Mexicali,” in Baja California, one independent producer said. “There are fewer expenses there, and it’s easier to cross the [US-Mexico] border.”

Law enforcement operations in that part of the border seem to support this claim. In October 2023, authorities in Baja California seized 35 kilograms of fentanyl from seven people accused of running a fentanyl lab in Mexicali. The next month, US border officials seized 840,000 fake fentanyl pills at the entry point connecting Mexicali to Calexico, California.

Fentanyl Seizures on US-Mexico Border at Record High Amid Production Ban

But while many independent fentanyl manufacturers may have eagerly accepted the chance to move their operations further north, the cook interviewed by InSight Crime said it's not worth it.

When he started cooking in the mountains around Culiacán in 2020, his team made as much as 60,000 pesos per kilogram (about $3,500) producing 10 to 15 kilograms of pure fentanyl each month, he said. But just before the ban took effect, he was only making 15,000 pesos (around $900), which was split among the six people working at the lab. Some markets in the United States are experiencing an oversupply of illegal fentanyl, which could partly explain the decrease.

“The pay isn’t great, and there's a lot of risk operating in that area right now,” he said.

In Mexicali, the security situation is more fluid than in Culiacán, where the Chapitos encounter less competition and maintain strict control in various areas.

In this strategically important desert valley on the US-Mexico border, the Rusos faction of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is aligned with networks linked to Ismael Zambada García, also known as “El Mayo,” has consistently fought rival cells supported by the Chapitos. The internal conflict over drug trafficking and migrant smuggling routes has been characterized by mass killings and forced disappearances that have paralyzed local communities.

A Resurgence?

While the fentanyl ban and increased pressure from the US and Mexican governments against members of the Sinaloa Cartel have pushed one of the group’s main sources of income into a state of uncertainty, sources interviewed by InSight Crime predicted a resurgence of fentanyl production in Sinaloa.

“Everything has changed,” said one person in charge of brokering fentanyl shipments primarily to the United States. “Nobody has permission [to produce fentanyl], but some people close to the bosses still are at labs well-hidden deep within Sinaloa’s sierra.”

After the ban was put in place, authorities in Culiacán continued seizing fentanyl and counterfeit pills from makeshift laboratories. But the Chapitos and other Sinaloa Cartel factions are not the only players involved in the fentanyl trade.

The reality on the ground, according to those interviewed by InSight Crime, is that there are several autonomous actors with numerous backers — among them rival Sinaloa Cartel factions — who form different supply chains to produce fentanyl. Multiple US intelligence agencies also noted in a recent threat assessment that there has been a “fragmentation of fentanyl operations” in Mexico.

But in Culiacán, traffickers expect fentanyl prices to rise due to the current controls on production. As demand remains high in key markets like the United States, fentanyl production is likely to continue growing and may even return to previous levels in Sinaloa.

“The money is too good,” said the broker.

*Miguel Ángel Vega contributed reporting to this article.

Featured image: A highway sign outside Culiacán spray-painted with “Chapisa,” a reference to the Chapitos faction of the Sinaloa Cartel. Credit: Parker Asmann / InSight Crime

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