The U.S. is now several years deep into an opioid epidemic that was born out of a belief in the 1990s by pharmaceutical companies and the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers.
The medical community’s prescribing practices were also exacerbated by public policies in the 2000s that began to decriminalize personal use quantities of illegal controlled substances and the ability of the Mexican drug cartels to manufacture alarming amounts of methamphetamine with precursor chemicals from China.
Fast forward to November 17, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an alarming 100,306 overdose deaths in the U.S. for a 12-month period ending in April 2021. Alarmingly, 75,673 of those deaths resulted from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl).
Because fentanyl is equivalent to a weapon of mass destruction. A single pill can kill and, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA),two out of every five pills contain a lethal dose of fentanyl which is an amount small enough to fit on a pencil tip.
Making matters worse, the Mexican drug cartels manufacture these pills to look identical to prescription medications like Xanax, Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin. Thus, a very small amount of fentanyl has the ability to kill in large numbers, and it is often disguised to look like something legally prescribed by a doctor.
When I retired from DEA in September 2021 as the Special Agent in Charge of the El Paso Division, fentanyl had become the leading cause of death for U.S. adults ranging in age from 18 to 45. While this sounds like a pressing public health problem, it is much more.
The illicit fentanyl and fentanyl related substances coming into the U.S. are from China and Mexico. Law enforcement efforts by China and Mexico have been minimal, and both countries have shown little interest in helping stop the flow of fentanyl into the U.S.
In fact, China rejects any blame for the fentanyl deaths in the U.S. However, we have to ask ourselves what are we doing to curb the flow of fentanyl, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs into the U.S.
Although China has begun to control fentanyl, there still remains a large number of illicit manufacturers of fentanyl in China. We urgently need to take direct action against Chinese chemical and pharmaceutical companies and their managers to force more aggressive enforcement, inspection, and monitoring.
With Mexico we have the convergence of Mexican drug cartels aggressively producing and importing fentanyl pills with Chinese chemicals, the Biden administration’s border policies and deteriorating cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies. As our security along the southern border continues to be degraded by the Biden administration’s border policies, the drug cartels are better able to send more drugs into the U.S.
We immediately need to provide more resources to law enforcement along the border, hire more agents and enhance our technological capabilities. The reforms that Mexico made to its national security law in December 2020 have impacted the cooperation between U.S. agencies and Mexican authorities allowing the drug cartels to operate with less threat of disruption.
As our ability to cooperate with Mexican authorities has been diminished and the cartels become more empowered, designating the Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) or reinstituting a certification process, despite some of the wide-ranging problems in bilateral relations, needs to be considered. Designation of drug cartels as FTOs would heighten global awareness and enhance U.S. national security by providing counterterrorism and military options and prosecution for material support of terrorism of persons in the U.S. who provide material support such as gun suppliers, drug buyers, and money launderers.
We have to ask ourselves, with drug overdose deaths exceeding 100,000 and our communities threatened by a drug (fentanyl) that has the killing power of a weapon of mass destruction, can we afford President Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador’s “hugs not bullets” approach to combat drug trafficking.
Kyle Williamson is the former special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso, Texas, division. He retired in September 2021.
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