The Biden administration is ramping up efforts to address the fentanyl crisis, increasing sanctions on traffickers and announcing plans to set up a global coalition to combat the illicit drug trade.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid painkiller 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Drug overdoses from synthetic opioids killed more than 70,000 people in the U.S. in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a statement, the White House said it will work with international partners to build a global coalition to “prevent illicit drug manufacturing, detect emerging drug threats, disrupt trafficking, address illicit finance, and respond to public safety and public health impacts.”
“This global coalition will develop solutions, drive national actions, and create synergies and leverage among like-minded countries who agree that countering illicit synthetic drugs must be a global policy priority,” according to the White House.
The initiative includes increasing coordination among U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies and with private sector companies, including chemical industries, shipping and delivery companies in the U.S. and abroad.
The White House did not name the countries involved in the partnership.
“We will have more details about our work with partners in the coming weeks and months, including as we build a global coalition to tackle this scourge,” a National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement to VOA.
A key step in this effort would be to internationally track the shipping of the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, said Earl Anthony Wayne, former ambassador to Mexico who is now a fellow at the Wilson Center.
“There's no tracking right now,” Wayne told VOA. “What you need to do is start building an international consensus to put new limits on these things. That doesn't happen overnight.”
There is a wide variety of substances that can be used to make fentanyl, and many of them have legitimate uses and are legal to sell, making them difficult to control internationally. The U.S. has been lobbying the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs to place international controls on 14 key fentanyl precursors and fentanyl analogues — drugs that have similar chemical structure and mimic the pharmacological effects of fentanyl.
Mexico and China
The fentanyl crisis has increased Washington’s tension with Mexico and China. The two countries are the primary sources for fentanyl and the precursor chemicals that are trafficked into the U.S., according to a report by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
U.S. officials say that since China started controlling fentanyl in 2021, Chinese traffickers shifted to exporting precursors for Mexican drug cartels to manufacture and traffic across the border, making up almost all fentanyl on American streets. They say Mexican cartels often make fentanyl look like other medications, such as Xanax, oxycodone or Percocet, or mix it into other drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Many people who die of overdoses in the U.S. do not know they are taking fentanyl.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador denies that his country produces the drug.
"In Mexico, fentanyl is not produced. The raw material for fentanyl is not produced. If China's government says they do not produce it either, then it is interesting. Who is producing it?" he said in a news conference on Monday, referring to Beijing’s response to his letter requesting that China help stop the flow of the drug.
In response to Lopez Obrador’s letter, China denied involvement in trafficking fentanyl and blamed the U.S. for its drug problems.
“The root cause of overdose lies in the U.S. itself, and the problem is completely made in the U.S. The U.S. should face up to its own problems and take more substantive measures to strengthen domestic supervision and reduce demand,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said last week.
China suspended all counternarcotics cooperation with the U.S. in August 2022 as a protest to then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.
White House Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Dr. Rahul Gupta said the administration will “make every effort to invite” China’s cooperation because “they can be a part of the solution.”
“They can, on this issue work as global leaders and demonstrate to the rest of the world what a global leader looks like when it comes to counter-narcotic efforts,” Gupta said an interview with VOA Wednesday.
However in the absence of significant warming in the bilateral relationship, experts say there is little prospect Beijing would resume its anti-drug cooperation with the U.S.
“China subordinates its counternarcotics cooperation to the geostrategic relationship with the United States,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Brookings Institution’s Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors, said in a March congressional hearing on China’s role on the fentanyl crisis. “U.S. punitive measures, such as sanctions and drug indictments, are unlikely to change that.”
Gupta said the administration is differentiating between the government in Beijing and criminal elements within China who are transporting precursor chemicals
“Over one hundred sanctions have already been placed on entities and individuals by the Department of Treasury in just the past year. That includes Chinese companies, chemical companies as well as Chinese individuals,” he said. “So we will continue to take action against those criminal elements who are working to ship these precursor chemicals that are killing Americans."
Some U.S. congressional members have been calling on the Biden administration to increase pressure on the Mexican government to crack down on fentanyl trafficking. In March, Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said he would introduce legislation to designate cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and give the U.S. military the authority to stop them.
“We’re going to unleash the fury and the might of the United States against these cartels,” he said.
The administration rejected the plan.
“The United States has powerful sanctions authorities specifically designated to combat narcotics-trafficking organizations and the individuals and entities that enable them,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Some Republicans have even called for the U.S. military to target facilities of drug cartels inside Mexico. Legislation to put the U.S. “at war with the cartels by authorizing the use of military force” has been introduced by Republican lawmakers.
“We must start treating them like ISIS, because that is who they are,” said Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw, a co-sponsor of the bill.
National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the administration is not considering military action in Mexico.
“We have robust law enforcement cooperation with Mexico, which has enabled us to take successful action against cartels, transnational criminal organizations, drug traffickers and human smugglers, and that will continue,” she said in a statement to VOA.
Lopez Obrador confirmed that members of his security Cabinet are in the U.S. this week to discuss fentanyl trafficking with U.S. officials. The meeting is a followup of the January summit in Mexico City to discuss better cooperation on various issues, including fentanyl trafficking, between U.S. President Joe Biden, Lopez Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Jorge Agobian in VOA's Spanish Service contributed to this report.