Trends in Mexican Opioid Trafficking and Implications for U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation

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Updated April 16, 2020
Trends in Mexican Opioid Trafficking and Implications for
U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation

As a primary source of and transit country for illicit drugs
seizures along the Southwest border have also increased,
destined for the United States, Mexico plays a key role in
doubling between 2010 and 2015, briefly declining in 2016,
U.S. drug control policy. Included among the illicit drugs
and then increasing again in 2017 and 2018 to the highest
produced in Mexico are heroin, fentanyl, fentanyl
recorded total since 2012.
analogues, and other opioids—substances that have
contributed to the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United
Figure 1. Poppy Cultivation in Mexico
States. As policymakers search for solutions to the current
opioid crisis, some may look abroad to the countries where
illicit U.S.-bound opioids are produced and trafficked,
including Mexico.
Global Context
Heroin is a highly addictive and internationally controlled
narcotic processed from morphine and extracted from
certain types of opium poppy plants. According to the
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC),
global opium poppy cultivation levels were higher in 2017
and 2018 than in any year since 2000. Less than 10% of
global opium poppy cultivation took place in Mexico.
Although heroin from Southwest and Southeast Asia
accounts for the vast majority of global production, Latin
America has featured as the main source of U.S.-consumed
heroin in recent decades. Until recently, Colombia and, to a
much lesser extent, Guatemala supplied the bulk of the U.S.
market. Since 2013, the majority of U.S.-seized heroin has
originated in Mexico as Mexican transnational criminal
organizations have taken over the U.S. market.
U.S. Estimates of Mexican Opium Poppy
Cultivation and Heroin Production
According to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control
Policy (ONDCP), 41,800 hectares of opium poppy were
cultivated in Mexico in 2018—down 5% compared to 2017,
but up 280% since 2013 (see Figure 1). Lower prices for

farm gate opium in 2018 (due in part to a possible
Source: Graphic created by CRS using data from ONDCP (2019),
oversupply amid stable U.S. demand) appear to account for
State Department (2017), Esri (2014), and DeLorme (2014).
the decline in cultivation that year. Opium poppy
cultivation historically has been concentrated in the hilly,
Eradication and Interdiction in Mexico
western regions of the country in two primary zones: the
The Mexican military is involved in several aspects of
southwestern states of Guerrero (and to a much lesser
domestic drug control. Since the 1930s, the army has
extent Oaxaca) and the tri-border or “golden triangle”
conducted drug eradication activities. The military is also
region of Durango, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua.
involved in detecting and interdicting illicit precursor
chemicals, currency, and drugs; dismantling clandestine
Along with opium poppy cultivation, heroin production has
drug labs; and arresting drug kingpins. In 2017, the navy
also surged in Mexico since 2013. According to ONDCP,
assumed control over Mexico’s ports (where most imports
Mexico produced an estimated 106 metric tons of potential
of precursor chemicals needed for the manufacture of illicit
pure heroin in 2018, down 4.5% compared to 2017, but up
drugs arrive) from the country’s customs agency.
308% since 2013. In 2018, Mexican-sourced heroin
accounted for 93% of the total weight of U.S.-seized heroin
During 2019, the first year of Andrés Manuel López
analyzed in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s
Obrador’s presidential term, eradication and interdiction
(DEA’s) Heroin Signature Program. According to data
efforts lagged. Mexico’s armed forces eradicated an
collected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, heroin
estimated 11,791 hectares, down from 21,556 hectares in

Trends in Mexican Opioid Trafficking and Implications for U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation
2018. Similarly, the defense ministry reported a 70%
 use intelligence to target which containers to inspect at
decline in heroin seizures as compared to 2018 and the
Pacific ports;
lowest number of drug labs destroyed (33) in six years.
 train all canines provided through the Mérida Initiative
Partially in response to U.S. pressure, eradication and
in fentanyl detection;
interdiction trends have begun to shift upward.
 engage bilaterally through a memorandum of
Fentanyl and Fentanyl Analogues
cooperation to address specifically precursor chemicals
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid significantly more potent than
and clandestine laboratories; and
heroin and approved for medical use as a painkiller and
 work with Canada through the North American Drug
anesthetic. Linked to the ongoing U.S. opioid epidemic,
Dialogue (last held in December 2019) to develop
fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances (i.e., fentanyl
common assessments of the opioid threat, regulate and
analogues) have become more available throughout the
classify fentanyl and its chemical precursors, improve
United States since 2014.
container security, and share best practices.
China has become a major source of fentanyl and fentanyl
Although the United States remains concerned that Mexico
analogues. Traffickers typically smuggle these substances
lacks a comprehensive drug control strategy, bilateral
into the United States through Mexico, Canada, and direct
efforts have yielded some results. Since December 2018,
mail. In May 2019, the Chinese government implemented
U.S. training and equipment have helped Mexico’s defense
strict controls on all forms of fentanyl, including fentanyl
ministry seize 293,000 fentanyl pills. U.S.-trained canines
analogues—a development that led to a decline in illicit
detected 26 kilograms of fentanyl in the first six months of
U.S.-bound shipments from China and the emergence of
2019. In August 2019, the U.S. and Mexican governments
Mexico as an important source of fentanyl-related
formed a drug policy group within a broader U.S.-Mexico
substances. Since 2018, several clandestine labs capable of
High-Level Security Group.
synthesizing fentanyl-related substances and pill-pressing
operations that laced fentanyl into counterfeit
Other Policy Issues
pharmaceuticals have been dismantled in Mexico.
In addition to bolstering domestic efforts to address opioid
demand, Congress has held hearings on Mexico’s role in
Mexico-based TCOs, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel and
heroin production and trafficking, introduced several
Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), are involved
resolutions on the trafficking of illicit fentanyl from Mexico
in the production and trafficking of fentanyl-related
and China, and considered multiple bills to address the
substances, according to DEA. Although the Mexican
import of illicit opioids and analogues into the United
government regulates and limits the import of two fentanyl
States. As Congress reviews recent efforts and considers
precursor chemicals (NPP and ANPP), TCOs reportedly
additional options, possible issues may include
rely on precursor (and pre-precursor) chemicals diverted
from China and India to synthesize and produce large
 the U.S. role in or responsibility for addressing the
amounts of fentanyl-related substances with relatively low
social consequences of U.S. demand in foreign source
purity (often less than 10%). According to a January 2020
and transit countries—including in Mexico;
DEA report, Fentanyl Flow to the United States, more

fentanyl-related substances (based on weight) are now
the extent to which competition among criminal groups
trafficked across the Southwest border than sent directly to
vying to satisfy U.S. opioid demand has fueled record
the United States from China.
violence in Mexico;

Combating Opioids: What Role for U.S.-
the extent to which fentanyl and fentanyl-related
Mexican Security Cooperation?
trafficking may be affecting Mexican opium poppy
U.S.-Mexican efforts to improve antidrug efforts in Mexico
increased under the Mérida Initiative, a U.S.-Mexican
 whether tension in U.S.-Mexican relations over other
partnership for which the U.S. Congress has provided $3.1
issues affects prospects for future bilateral cooperation
billion since FY2008. Mérida Initiative funds support
to address heroin production and trafficking; and,
bilateral and trilateral (with Canada) efforts to increase

cooperation to combat heroin and fentanyl production and
how President López Obrador has responded to U.S.
pressure to increase his government’s antidrug efforts.
trafficking. Recent efforts aim to

For additional background, see CRS Report R45790, The
improve Mexico’s data on and targeting of opium poppy
Opioid Epidemic: Supply Control and Criminal Justice
eradication efforts and data on opium cultivation and
Policy—Frequently Asked Questions; and CRS In Focus
heroin yield through collaboration with UNODC;
IF10890, Illicit Fentanyl, China’s Role, and U.S. Foreign
 provide specialized training and personal protective
Policy Options.
equipment to Mexican personnel for interdicting drugs
(such as fentanyl), pill pressing operations, and illicit
Liana W. Rosen, Specialist in International Crime and
drug labs;
 upgrade Mexico’s national drug control system to better
Clare Ribando Seelke, Specialist in Latin American
track the flow of chemical precursors;

Trends in Mexican Opioid Trafficking and Implications for U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation

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