A secret look at a Mexican cartel’s low-tech, multimillion-dollar fentanyl operation

Tonight, we begin a three-part look at the production — and devastating effects — of the drug fentanyl. Illicit use of the synthetic opioid painkiller has ravaged the United States, with Mexican drug cartels now seeing huge profits. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, from Sinaloa State, in Mexico, special correspondent Monica Villamizar and videographer Zach Fannin report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight, we begin a three-part look at the production, and devastating of effects of the drug fentanyl.

    Illicit use of the synthetic opioid painkiller has ravaged the United States, and Mexican drug cartels now see huge profits, and an addicted market for the drug.

    With the support of the Pulitzer Center, from Sinaloa state in Mexico, special correspondent Monica Villamizar and videographer Zach Fannin report.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    A handful of dirt is thrown into the wind to gauge the way its blowing. It's important work, because one gust in the wrong direction and any mistake in this delicate process could lead to death.

  • Pedro, Fentanyl Cook (through translator):

    Your life is at stake. An experienced cook knows to look at the direction of the wind, and to turn around when the wind turns, and he knows that this is vital. There are people who get sick. This process starts very toxic, but the toxicity fades.

    An expert knows, towards the end, you can get close to the pot. If the toxicity was high at that point, you could not even get near to empty the pot. That is when the black goat is made.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Heroin is usually called black goat, but these drugmakers aren't using poppy plants as their raw materials. Instead, they start with this synthetic powder, which is cooked over an open flame. The drug is called fentanyl.

    And we're at the heart of the industry inside the Western Mexican state of Sinaloa. We have been given rare access to one of the Sinaloa cartel's fentanyl labs. It's quite ingenious, because they have set it up in the middle of those cows. And because there are so many police operations right now in the area, the cows provide a perfect cover.

    Now, we have been advised to wear a respirator and goggles because fentanyl is very, very toxic. And many of these cooks have died just by inhaling it.

    These cooks work without protective equipment. And they believe in a myth here that drinking beer will disable the high that comes along with being close to the heated substance.

    This man, who we are calling Pedro, is one of the first links in a chain that sends fentanyl from Mexico to the United States. This package of fentanyl, which is sold as a competitor to heroin, weighs 11 pounds and sells for $15,000 in Sinaloa's capital, Culiacan.

    The further the product travels, the more valuable it gets. By the time it arrives in America, 11 pounds could sell for $100,000. Fentanyl has proven to be a diabolical game-changer for the cartels. It's inexpensive. It can be mixed into drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and other opiates.

  • Pedro (through translator):

    Right now, as fentanyl is stronger than anything, a little fentanyl can make 11 pounds of black goat, and it is stronger than the poppy flower. That's why people gave up on heroin, it's way cheaper with fentanyl.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    So many people are dying of fentanyl overdose. So, do you feel somehow responsible, since what they are consuming is made here?

  • Pedro (through translator):

    Well, it is something that the one who consumes decides on his own. Drugs are bad and addictive. Consumers are aware that the effect doesn't last long, but they cannot go without it. Although they know that it is wrong, it is addictive.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Have you had any of your friends die making it?

  • Pedro (through translator):

    So many died for a few pesos. We all like money. There are people who aspire to have better things, but the big money is not made by us. It's made by others. Many workers have no other job. It's a hustle.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Many in the region are self-taught chemists working in a low-tech multimillion-dollar operation. These men used to be farmers until their home state became the stronghold of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, once run by this man, Joaquin Guzman, nicknamed El Chapo.

    He's now serving a life sentence in an American prison.

    Writer Ioan Grillo explains that fentanyl and synthetics are easier to produce than crop-based drugs like heroin or cocaine.

    Ioan Grillo, Author, "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency": You don't have to care about protecting those from military. You just buy some precursors, you mix it up in a lab, and you have got your drug.

    So the profit margins are massive on synthetic drugs. Also, you can do this anywhere. So this has really changed the geography of organized crime as well. We can find labs all over the country. You can see labs for synthetic drugs on the outskirts of Mexico City. You can see labs right on the border with the United States.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    With El Chapo serving life, his three sons, known as the Chapitos, or Little Chapos, were left to run the criminal empire.

    Back in 2019, the Mexican military arrested one of them, but was forced to let him go, after the Sinaloa cartel barricaded the city of Culiacan and overpowered the soldiers.

  • Ioan Grillo:

    Mexico has a dysfunctional justice system.

    And it not only means that criminals can get away with murder, and you have some states where you have a 98 percent impunity for murder, which means the cartels develop this power as the alternative version of offering security.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    We reached out to Mexico's Department of Justice, but we were not granted an interview. Some of Mexico's biggest drug bosses were from Sinaloa state.

    The capital city, Culiacan, remains a safe space for criminal families to live in peace. This is not an upscale neighborhood. It's actually a cartel cemetery in Culiacan and a reminder of the deadly cost of the illicit drug business. Many who lie inside these tombs were once top players.

    Their final resting places are equipped with party rooms, security systems, surveillance cameras, and air conditioning. The drug business has generated so much violence that there is a cult of death here. Its icon is Santa Muerte, or Saint Death.

    Saturnino Losoya takes care of this shrine in Sinaloa state.

  • Saturnino Losoya, Sinaloa Shrine Guardian (through translator):

    Some people say that they are afraid of her. That is why some don't get near here.

    I have never been afraid of death, I know that I am going to die one day, and she is going to take care of me. I know she will take me away, but I don't know where to.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Sinaloa is also home to narcos that manufacture fentanyl pills inside homemade labs that are run by chemists, like this man. He says he is always alert, as too much exposure to fentanyl, even in pill form, can be deadly.

    The chemist says he makes 150,000 pills on a good day, which are worth about $90,000 in Sinaloa. The same pills can fetch about 10 or 20 times that price when they hit the streets of America. The pills are marked M30, M20 and M10.

  • Man (through translator):

    M30 carries 30 milligrams of fentanyl. The other has 10 milligrams. Some inferior pills aren't clearly marked, but these are the good ones, the M30.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    A few years back, he made OxyContin pills, another opioid painkiller. But, today, he only makes fentanyl, which is much stronger and deadlier.

    Since fentanyl is added into almost every drug in the illicit market, it helps explain the cost of over 90,000 overdose deaths last year in the United States.

    The cartel chemist says the spike in overdose deaths is the fault of local dealers in America who change the original dosage.

  • Man (through translator):

    Look, it has been known that there are many problems in the U.S. People are dying. What happens is that people take our product and they put more stuff into it. Then they modify it.

    Our formula does not kill. But if you change the product, then there can be a big problem.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The pills are wrapped in carbon paper and tape. The tape protects them from sniffing dogs. The paper hides them from X-ray machines.

    Before they are exported, they are tested. A pill that has the right amount of active ingredient has a faint smell of popcorn. The chemist gave us a peek at how they hide drugs in the back of cars that are sent north to America.

    I ask them if this car will cross the border or if the drugs will be transferred to another vehicle.

  • Man (through translator):

    Sometimes. It depends. It depends on movement across the route.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The chemist tells us we have to leave. The presence of our camera risks his operation.

    According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the vast majority of fentanyl goes into the U.S. through legal ports of entry, in vehicles. Nobody knows how much fentanyl in both gel and pill form is successfully crossing the Southern border.

    But as long as there is demand, chemists and illicit cooks like these men will keep up the supply.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Monica Villamizar in Culiacan, Sinaloa,

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just stunning to have that access.

    And, tomorrow, we look at the price of addiction in Arizona in lives and livelihoods, as fentanyl streams across the border.

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