Where is Fentanyl Coming From?

05 Mar Where is Fentanyl Coming From?

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Fentanyl is an extremely deadly synthetic drug that has found its way into the hands of American citizens. Read on to find out where fentanyl is produced and what the U.S. government is doing in terms of law enforcement to stop it from killing thousands of individuals struggling with fentanyl abuse and drug overdose every single year.  This article will review facts about Fentanyl and discuss how this dangerous drug is getting into the United States.

Production of Fentanyl

Fentanyl is an especially lethal synthetic opioid that many individuals are using as a substitute for more expensive substances like heroin. It is much cheaper than heroin and up to fifty times more potent, making it incredibly lucrative for drug traffickers and aggressively deadly for those who use the opiate.

Fentanyl in Relation to Other Synthetic Drugs

This opioid is a drug often used in conjunction with another substance, like cocaine or alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that fentanyl-related deaths are generally caused by the drug’s illegal use.

Chemically Producing the Opiate

The precursor chemicals necessary to produce fentanyl are highly controlled in the U.S. However, cases have been popping up across the country of people trying to manufacture it domestically in clandestine labs. In 2018, the DEA received a tip regarding a meth lab in a hotel room in Western Pennsylvania but ended up busting a homemade fentanyl lab instead.

Modifying the Purity

Fentanyl in its purest form is extremely dense. Combining the opiate with a filler drug provides some pros and cons for drug dealers:

  • Traffickers decrease the purity of the opiate to stretch its value and increase production.
  • More product leads to a higher profit margin.
  • Low purity product leads to an overall larger seizure since the drug takes up more space in the vehicle transporting it.
  • More likelihood of having the contraband discovered by border patrol officials.

How Fentanyl Gets into the Unites States

The illegal drug trade is well established in the United States. Traffickers have built long-standing trade routes, often utilizing legal ports of entry to import illicit drugs. Fentanyl’s high transportability makes drug trafficking quite doable along the same routes used to move other drugs like marijuana and heroin. Mexico’s influence on the opioid crisis in the United States is rising; narcotraffickers are either producing fentanyl in Mexico with chemicals from China, or importing the drug directly from China after it’s been processed, then smuggling it into the U.S.

Where is Fentanyl Coming From?

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), most fentanyl is manufactured in China and then shipped directly to the United States. Because an average dose of the opiate is approximately 1 milligram, traffickers can smuggle fentanyl in small packages or even letters through the international mail service. The illicit drugs are also brought into the country via legal ports of entry to the north, through Canada, or to the south, through Mexico.  

Online and Mail Order Purchase

Due to the rise of online transactions, fentanyl can be delivered right to an individual’s door through portals in the “dark web” – websites that only exist on an encrypted network and are inaccessible through traditional search engines and browsers like Google or Safari.

What officials are especially careful about are shipments through international mail and package delivery systems, usually from China. These shipments often contain a product that is closer to 100% pure fentanyl. This makes for smaller, deadlier quantities infiltrating the country through the mail and package deliveries.

Ports of Entry

Some data from the federal government backs up the idea that a physical barrier to entry, rather than institutional barriers to entry, like increased mandatory documentation or regulations, may not protect our country from the influx of fentanyl. The DEA conducted a report in 2015 that drug traffickers “transport the bulk of their goods over the Southwest Border through ports of entry using passenger vehicles between crossing points.”

In regard to other drugs being imported, the DEA clarified that hard synthetic opioids like heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and meth mostly make their way into the U.S. through legal ports of entry whereas marijuana is often smuggled through the areas between crossing points. In this case, the influx of marijuana into the country could potentially reduce due to the construction of a border wall and increased enforcement.

America’s Southern Border

One may believe that blocking off more of the country’s border—building a wall, for example—would significantly reduce the prevalence of fentanyl and diminish the opioid crisis within the United States. This may not be the case. Drug trafficking through a legal port of entry, like an official border crossing, is how most illicit substances and synthetic drugs make it into the U.S.

Hidden from customs and border patrol officials, drugs may lie beneath:

  • Produce
  • Electronics
  • Livestock
  • Vehicles entering with legal passengers

This kind of drug import will be totally unhindered by a wall erected to stop the illegal border crossing of humans.  

Smuggling Strategies

As the drug trade has become more lucrative to traffickers over the past few decades, methods of importing illicit substances into the United States grew increasingly complex. The following are a few examples of the ways narcotraffickers smuggle drugs past law enforcement officials. Keep in mind that while not all are very common, they have all proven successful and therefore should be taken seriously regardless of how funny the methods seem on the surface:

  • Tunnels
  • Drones
  • Submarines
  • Bazookas
  • Narco-torpedoes


Passages deep underneath the US-Mexico border shuttle illegal goods from one country to another, including but surely not limited to fentanyl and other hard drugs. Drug cartels carved up the land beneath the surface of the border to get around making the perilous journey to the United States by land or water. While some tunnels have been discovered by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, they often go undisturbed and remain in use to this day.  


These small flying machines have made smuggling narcotics and synthetic drugs from one place to the next fairly easy for drug cartels. Traffickers have begun to rely on drone transportation rather heavily over the past few years, and their usage does not seem to be lessening any time soon. The U.S. Border Patrol has incorporated drone defense into its anti-trafficking strategy; the agency now deploys a small blimp with low-altitude radar to detect drones before they cross into the country.


Submersibles and semi-submersibles are almost exclusively related to the transport of drugs from Colombia to Mexico through the Gulf of Mexico. From there, Mexican traffickers redirect the drugs through the traditional drug trade routes and funnel illegal substances into the United States. While these vehicles are often homemade, they can be incredibly well-manufactured and sophisticated. Submarines have absolutely revolutionized the South American drug trade at the start of the distribution process.


While a seemingly rudimentary tactic, drug traffickers have perfected the art of literally flinging contraband across the border. Mexican officials discovered what looked like a cannon that may have been used to shoot drugs from the country into the United States. Since 2012, authorities in the U.S. have reported similar “homemade bazookas,” though they have probably been in use for years longer. These devices have the power to launch narcotics that are stored in cans hundreds of meters from the border.


Similar to the submarine strategy, narco-torpedoes aid traffickers in transporting drugs deep below the surface of the ocean at nearly undetectable depths. They are attached to boats with cables that can be released if a smuggler’s boat is ever caught or inspected. The narco-torpedo will float to the bottom of the ocean, waiting to be retrieved by someone with the help of a homing device attached to the machine. Since the narco-torpedo is extremely deep underwater—both when it is en route and when it is detached for safety—typical security radars won’t be able to detect it.

The past shows that no matter what barriers the United States puts up to stop traffickers from importing illicit substances, smugglers are very talented at identifying the holes in America’s security and furthering the drug trade.

Defense Strategies Against Importation

Border security and drug policy experts say a border wall will have little to no effect on reducing the influx of fentanyl and other illegal substances, regardless of the extent that drugs do in fact come through the span of land a wall would cover. While this is a pessimistic outlook, it may be the most realistic one for the state of drug trafficking in the near future. History has shown us that traffickers are notoriously good at finding ways around obstacles.

Physical Border Defense

Suppose the United States moves forward with the construction of the border wall but implements additional security at legal ports of entry to diminish the likelihood of traffickers blending into the crowd. Despite significantly increased security, it is impossible for border patrol officers to identify and apprehend every single smuggler that attempts to get across the border without negatively affecting the economy.

The quest to halt the drug trade requires active initiatives, not passive ones like a barbed fence or even a wall of concrete.

Traffickers can:

  • Launch drugs over the wall
  • Use drones to carry them high above and then drop them at a predetermined destination
  • Dig under the wall and transport the drugs through tunnels
  • Simply sail around the wall and circumvent it altogether

In the slim chance that a wall did end up making a significant dent in the importation of drugs into the country, smugglers would probably just shift their distribution tactics to find other ways into the United States.

Securing Ports of Entry

If the officers were notoriously thorough in their search of every single person and vehicle passing through the entry port, it would seriously slow down a crucial point of trade between two adjacent allies, Mexico and the United States. This is the exact reason why many smugglers choose legal points of entry as their focal entryway for illicit substances.

Drug traffickers decided long ago that it is both safer and more reliable to hide amongst a sea of legal traffic rather than resort to roaming the desert or embarking on a treacherous journey through rivers heavily patrolled by guards.

Monitoring International Shipments

Robert Gross, chief watch commander at the cargo headquarters for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), says that express carriers and foreign governments work closely with the U.S. Postal Service to help identify more packages that could contain the deadly drug.

CBP officials are detaining not only those in charge of transporting the drugs but those who manufacture them. The U.S. Department of Justice recently served its first ever indictments against several Chinese manufacturers of fentanyl and other opioids. This global effort has proven successful as smugglers are being caught at a higher rate than previous years.

In addition to shipments and packages identified as suspicious by the CBP cargo headquarters, all international mail shipped to the Unites States is X-rayed for potential illicit substances. Despite the thorough inspection, fentanyl still finds its way into the hands of American citizens every day. It is difficult even for advanced security devices to detect something measured in milligrams in the overwhelming amount of mail that passes through the country on a daily basis.

The “Balloon Effect”

Imagine the drug trade is like a big, flexible balloon.

  1. You push one area of the balloon down.
  2. The air flows to another part of the balloon
  3. You push the balloon down as a whole.
  4. Only then does the balloon pop.

This mirrors the defense efforts of the United States and many other countries heavily affected by the international drug trade.

Even if the U.S. was able to make trafficking into the country so difficult for smugglers that they decided to give up on importing into the country, chances are they would not just give up the drug trade altogether. They would simply shift their supply to a different part of the world, where the demand was prevalent and easy to satisfy.

This phenomenon is fittingly called the “balloon effect,” and could very well happen if drastic border security measures make crossing the United States border more trouble than it’s worth.

In Closing

Now you know where fentanyl comes from and how it is making its way into the United States. This opiate epidemic is one of the deadliest, most potent drug occurrences on the market and its import from around the world has not shown any signs of slowing down. If you or a loved one is struggling with fentanyl addiction, contact a medical professional or a recovery clinic as soon as possible. If you want to achieve sobriety, you will have to start the Fentanyl withdrawal process right away. Our Georgia drug rehab will guide you throughout the process and get you back on the road to recovery.


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