EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Mexican drug cartels are now using industrial facilities to churn out vast amounts of potentially deadly fentanyl pills meant for U.S. consumption, a Virginia-based security analyst says.

These factories – equipped with large presses, imported precursor chemicals from Asia, containers and loading docks – are in the warehouse districts of major cities in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Sinaloa, Michoacan, Guerrero and others where transnational criminal organizations exert fear and influence over the locals.

The pills are then transported by land to the border and smuggled past U.S. ports of entry.

“Where a lot of it is being manufactured is in states that are controlled by these cartels […] and states like Colima where the precursor chemicals are coming in from China,” said Michael Ballard, director of intelligence for Global Guardian.

The group this week released its 2023 Risk Assessment Map. It shows Mexico burning bright red amid cartel violence the group says has shown propensity to spill onto civilians, including visitors, at any time.

Ballard attributes at least some of the violence to disputes over control of the fentanyl production, distribution, and trafficking. Two cartels, Sinaloa and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), are trying to dominate this highly profitable trade.

“That’s why you’re seeing a lot of violence lately in the Western half of Mexico, because these two cartels are accommodating in this trade, fighting with each other. And then you have factions fighting with each other. Sinaloa has rival factions and they’re (also) fighting with police,” Ballard said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid playing a significant role in an overdose epidemic that has claimed the lives of more than 107,000 Americans in the last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Drug Enforcement Administration says it took 10.2 million fentanyl pills and 980 pounds of fentanyl powder off the streets from May to September and linked at least 35 overdose poisoning cases directly to the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels. The CDC says a 2-milligram dose of fentanyl can be fatal, and the DEA says 42 of the pills they seized had that amount.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also reports seizing nearly 13,000 pounds of the pills this fiscal year. But Ballard says the seizures account for perhaps 10 percent of the fentanyl that is coming from Mexico. “The seizure rate is much lower than what is making its way across the border; they seize maybe 10 percent of what’s coming in,” he said.

The group says Mexican government raids on large fentanyl manufacturing plants are rare, but when they happen, they lay bare the scope of their production.

“In July they raided an industrial warehouse in Culiacan (Sinaloa) and they found 70 kilos of chemical precursors, 500 kilos of fentanyl and 500 kilos of crystal meth,” Ballard said. “Yes, they’re getting the chemicals and the powder, they’re cutting it down to much lower concentrates – 10-15 percent of purity – and they’re creating high volume with their presses. Most of the pills making their way across the U.S. border are being pressed in Mexico.”

Mexican soldiers stand by jugs of precursor chemicals for the manufacture of illicit fentanyl pills seized from a warehouse in Sinaloa. (photo Government of Mexico)

Ballard said reducing fentanyl trafficking into the U.S. is a complicated proposition because it involves foreign governments. “China in 2019 agreed to crack down on illegal exports of precursor chemicals. They really cracked down, especially in Hong Kong,” he said. “But as long as there is demand there will be supply. Organized crime has access to precursor chemicals and powder, and you (still) have shipments to Mexico.”

Beyond stepped-up law enforcement, Ballard said limiting the U.S. demand for the product would be the most effective solution.

“You can only seize so much at the border, and there’s always going to be more behind it. The longer-term solution to this is reducing demand, but that’s a tough one.”