EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Synthetic drugs such as meth and fentanyl have become the Mexican cartels’ cash cow, funding internal territorial wars and flooding North American consumer markets, experts and law-enforcement sources say.

Production and smuggling is at historic highs; so much so that supply is outstripping demand in the United States and forcing criminal organizations to open new markets, according to a new report by Stratfor, an Austin-based geopolitical security group that monitors drug cartel activity.

For the United States, this means continued vigilance at the border, investment in new technologies and a constant state of alert in communities where lethal drug overdoses have shot up in recent years.

For Mexico, this means daily bloodshed and despair over the growing number of addicts in border cities like Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, fueled by the sale of whatever drugs the cartels are unable to smuggle into the U.S.

“We have seen increases in synthetic drugs, particularly crystal meth. The increment is such that crystal is now on par with marijuana,” says Jorge Nava, the Juarez-based Deputy Attorney General for the border state of Chihuahua.

Selling drugs has become a high-risk activity in Mexico. Between 80% to 90% of the 1,497 homicides recorded in Juarez last year were drug-related, Nava said. And, lately, so is consuming the drugs. Two men and two women who allegedly gathered to consume crystal meth were shot to death on Sunday. A week earlier five people were shot in the back of a home business where authorities also found traces of meth.

In El Paso, seizures are up, particularly at border crossings.

“The legalization of marijuana and the current opioid crisis in the United States has resulted in the market for these narcotics to significantly increase,” said Erik P. Breitzke, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in El Paso.

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Last fiscal year, HSI seized more than 800 pounds of fentanyl and methamphetamine in the El Paso Sector combined. Nationwide, meth seizures at ports of entry have gone up from 19,613 pounds in 2014 to 68,585 pounds in 2019. Fentanyl seizures, which weren’t even kept track of at the border in 2014, have gone up from 70 pounds in 2015 to 2,545 in 2019.

According to anaylists at Stratfor, many criminal organizations in Mexico have hit high gear on the production of methanphetamines and fentanyl because of high profit margins.

Growing marijuana means maintaing control of large swaths of land and paying farm hands. It takes months to grow the plants and fields are subject to army raids or, more commonly, bad weather. Altough cocaine is surging again due to bumper crops in South America’s Andes mountains, according to the 2019 DEA National Drug Threat Assessment, the Mexican groups are only a middleman in the distribution.

Producing meth or fentanyl is cheap by comparison, particularly with Asian suppliers selling methylamine to the Mexican cartels, a substance which is neither as expensive nor controlled as is the pseudoephedrine used to “cook” meth in the United States. according to Stratfor.

The results can be seen in the 2019 Threat Assessment: 15 of the 23 DEA field divisions reported an increase in the availability of fentanyl in 2018, compared to the previous year. Overdose deaths leveled at around 68,000 in the two previous years, but fentanyl was the cause in nearly half of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No end in sight for drug violence in Mexico

The number of drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico has been increasing since the downfall of dominant groups like the Tijuana and Juarez cartels. What followed was a process that Statfor calls the “Balkanization” of Mexico, or the rise of smaller regional groups either independent or propped up by major organization.

Taking a look at Stratfor’s 2020 tracking map compared to the 2019 assessment, it’s clear only two major drug cartels remain and that one of them is making an aggressive play to expand its territory.

Whereas in early 2019 the Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) controlled western Mexico and had influence in the south and in Veracruz, today it appears to control the lower half of Mexico and is fighting for control of Tijuana, Juarez, Monterrey and the North-Central corridor leading to areas previously held by the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel — these last two facing an offensive by a Tamaulipas state government bent on re-establishing the rule of law after a decade of mayhem.

According to Statfor, this regional fighting that led to a record number of killings in 2019 shows no sign of relenting.

This map shows areas of cartel influence in Mexico as of January 2019. (graphic courtesy Stratfor)

“The forces that shaped the violence in 2019 were much the same as those in 2018, and as 2020 dawns, the regions are mired in bloody cartel conflicts that show no sign of resolution,” their January 2020 report states.

This map shows areas of cartel influence in Mexico as of January 2020. (graphic courtesy Stratfor)

And rather than go at each other with everything they have, the two major cartels are fighting by proxy, supplying guns, money and in some cases men to local groups cooperating with them.

“This dynamic has been at work in cities such as Tijuana and Juarez for several years, as local proxies supported by the Sinaloa cartel and the CJNG remain in bitterly contested battles for control,” the report states.

And just as the government of Tamaulipas finally appears to be getting the upper hand over the Cartel del Noreste (CDN, formerly the Zetas) and the Gulf Cartel, Jalisco’s CJNG is supporting a new group, Los Metros, in Reynosa, according to Stratfor.

Likewise, just at the CJNG maintains a crushing offensive against what’s left of groups like La Familia Michoacán (LFM) and others in Western Mexico for control of land where opium poppies (which are used to make heroin), the Sinaloa cartel is funding a breakaway group called Nueva Plaza Guadalajara, to hound the CJNG. Sinaloa is also reportedly funding anti-CJNG forces in Michoacán and Guerrero, according to Stratfor.

Jalisco’s push for control of the North-Central Mexico network of highways to the border has caused major population displacement. The thousands of Mexicans who arrived in Juarez and other border cities in September intent on requesting asylum in the United States were coming from towns in Guerrero and Michoacán that the CJNG was trying to control or from the states where it was trying to take over the highways, as Border Report previously documented.

And a new threat is emerging from the cartels. As they look for new ways to make money, Mexican criminal groups are turning to the theft of commercial trucks. So far, cargo thefts have been setting records in Mexico City and its surrounding areas, but there are signs this problem could expand northward.

“Cargo theft has clearly become a larger threat in the Guadalajara and Monterrey areas and along the routes that lead from those industrial centers to the border,” the report says.

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