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U.S. officials say they're poised to deal a 'crushing blow' to fentanyl traffickers


U.S. officials say they've identified and, quote, "infiltrated" the Mexican cartel smuggling most the deadly fentanyl now reaching American cities.


They say they've launched a new effort to arrest leaders and top operatives of the Sinaloa cartel.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is here. Brian, what role do officials say this cartel plays in the fentanyl crisis?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration officials say they now believe this one faction of the Sinaloa cartel, known as the Chapitos network, built and now operates the major pipeline of illegal fentanyl, pumping the drug into the U.S. They say these are the guys responsible for a lot of the 80,000 Americans dying from opioid overdoses every year.

MARTÍNEZ: And how do they know that?

MANN: What they say is that over the last 18 months, they managed to infiltrate the Chapitos network and, quote, "obtained unprecedented access to the organization's highest levels." They were able to map out its operations from China to Mexico, to the U.S. And in these indictments made public last week, they described secret fentanyl deals they were able to observe in locations around the world. And what they learned is pretty brutal. In addition to smuggling all that fentanyl, the Chapitos allegedly waged a campaign of violence and terror. Here's Attorney General Merrick Garland.


MERRICK GARLAND: They often torture and kill their victims. They have fed some of their victims, dead and alive, to tigers belonging to the Chapitos.

MANN: It's pretty horrible stuff. And now the U.S. is offering tens of millions of dollars in rewards, A, as they try to arrest the cartel's leaders.

MARTÍNEZ: Tell us more about the Chapitos.

MANN: This faction of Sinaloa is led by the sons of Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo, who's already serving a life sentence in federal prison in the U.S. These guys took over after their dad's arrest. Sam Quinones is a veteran journalist who covers the Mexican cartels. He says capturing them would be a major victory.

SAM QUINONES: These guys are absolute creeps, these Chapito dudes. I think bringing these previously untouchable princes of drugs to some kind of justice is a very good thing all the way around.

MANN: And these indictments go beyond the top leaders. They target about two dozen Sinaloa operatives around the world.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Meanwhile, the Mexican government has pulled back from cooperating with the U.S. in the drug war. What's their response to these indictments?

MANN: Well, this is interesting. They're angry. Everyone agrees the Chapitos network is a corrupting, violent influence inside Mexico. But President Lopez Obrador told reporters Monday, this DEA operation infiltrating the Sinaloa cartel happened without his government's authorization. He describes this as a threat to his country's sovereignty, says it's part of a wider campaign by the U.S. government spying inside Mexico.



MANN: What he says there is that it's abusive, arrogant meddling that should not be accepted under any circumstance. So while the U.S. says it's making progress here, the diplomatic rift over how to tackle fentanyl, it's clearly widening.

MARTÍNEZ: And at the end of things, Brian, I mean, is there evidence that this pressure on this cartel will slow fentanyl smuggling and even maybe save lives?

MANN: Well, U.S. officials say they think this will help. But most experts I talked to are really skeptical. They just don't believe it. Fentanyl is really easy to make from industrial chemicals. The demand in the U.S., the level of opioid addiction is huge, so fentanyl trafficking is incredibly profitable. If the Chapitos are put in prison, there are other factions of the Sinaloa cartel and also other major cartels that are ready to take their place. Jon Caulkins studies drug trafficking at Carnegie Mellon University.

JONATHAN CAULKINS: I, though, am quite pessimistic. In the best of all possible worlds, we would literally shrink the supply. That's very difficult to do. That was very difficult to do even with cocaine and heroin, and for a bunch of reasons, it's much harder with a synthetic.

MANN: So Caulkins supports this effort to take down the Chapitos. He thinks they're brutal criminals and should be brought to justice. But he also thinks, you know, the cold, hard reality is that fentanyl is here to stay.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Brian Mann covers addiction and drug policy for NPR. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.