DEA Releases 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment

DEA Report on Cartels - Blog Post Part 1 - Trafficking in and throughout the United States

Part 1: Drug Cartels: Trafficking Drugs Into and Throughout the United States

This is a 2-part series with Part 1 focusing on how illicit drugs enter and spread throughout the United States.  Part 2 of the series will be published in August and will focus on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s response to this crisis.

Each year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) releases a national drug threat assessment.  In May, the DEA Administrator released the 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA) of illicit drug threats and trafficking trends endangering the United States. This comprehensive overview sheds light on the intricate dynamics of drug trafficking and its devastating impact on communities in the United States. The assessment is used by law enforcement, policy makers, prevention and treatment agencies and serves as an information tool to educate the general public1.

“The shift from plant-based drugs, like heroin and cocaine, to synthetic, chemical-based drugs, like fentanyl and methamphetamine, has resulted in the most dangerous and deadly drug crisis the United States has ever faced,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “At the heart of the synthetic drug crisis are the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels and their associates, who DEA is tracking world-wide. The suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and money launderers all play a role in the web of deliberate and calculated treachery orchestrated by these cartels. DEA will continue to use all available resources to target these networks and save American lives.1

Illicit forms of synthetic drugs, fentanyl and methamphetamine, are responsible for nearly all the fatal drug overdoses in the U.S2. The two primary routes responsible are illicit fentanyl pills made to mimic the look of a genuine prescription drug tablet and lacing other illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin with powdered fentanyl2.

Criminal Landscape

Besides trafficking plant-based drugs, drug cartels manufacture synthetic illicit drugs and reap huge profits from their sale. These drugs can be manufactured anywhere given the chemicals, equipment, and manufacturing recipes are available.  Let’s examine the two main Mexican Cartels that threaten the health and well-being of U.S. citizens.

Sinaloa Cartel2

The Sinaloa Cartel is one of Mexico’s oldest criminal organizations, and one of the most violent and prolific polydrug-trafficking cartels in the world. They direct the smuggling of fentanyl and other illicit drugs into the United States every day, from smaller packages carried by human “mules” to thousands of pounds co- mingled with legitimate trade goods carried by tractor-trailers. The Sinaloa Cartel wields power through fear, threats, and violence, killing local police, journalists, members of other criminal groups who encroach on their territory without authorization – usually obtained by paying a “piso” – civilian victims “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and even killing their own members for perceived disloyalty, disobedience, or to send a message. The cartel commits crimes to further and protect their drug interests, like bribery, extortion, and weapons trafficking; and they commit crimes for pure profit, such as human smuggling and trafficking. The Sinaloa Cartel has built a mutually profitable partnership with China-based precursor chemical suppliers to obtain the ingredients they need to make synthetic drugs, and with Chinese money laundering organizations (MLOs) to return “clean” drug proceeds to the cartel in Mexico.

The Sinaloa Cartel does not have a leader. Rather, the cartel consists of four criminal organizations working together and each organization has a leader. One of the organizations was led by well-known  convicted criminal that is currently serving a prison sentence in the U.S. – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera.

The Sinaloa Cartel dominates the fentanyl market and pioneered the deadliest drug threat in the U.S. They control the global supply chain and operate the majority of clandestine fentanyl labs in Mexico. They control the procurement of precursor chemicals from China and India and direct the production of illicit fentanyl from labs throughout Mexico. It is this Cartel that is responsible for manufacturing illicit fentanyl pills to resemble trademarked prescription pills.

The multi-tons of methamphetamine produced in Sinaloa Cartel-controlled labs is purer and more potent than at any time in the past. The ample supply, low cost, and high potency has enabled the cartel to expand beyond traditional methamphetamine markets in the western United States into eastern U.S. markets, effectively flooding the United States with another deadly product. Methamphetamine is also the main drug leveraged by the Sinaloa Cartel to enter illicit drug markets in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, where their profits can be more than 100 times higher than from U.S. sales.

In addition to the synthetic drugs fentanyl and methamphetamine, the Sinaloa Cartel continues to traffic plant-based drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. The Cartel controls major seaports and trucking companies in Mexico making it easy to import and transport the precursor chemicals to the manufacturing labs. Transporting the final drugs into the U.S. is easy as the Cartel uses border tunnels that are part of sewage and water systems.

Jalisco Cartel2

The Jalisco Cartel is one of Mexico’s most powerful and ruthless criminal organizations, and another key driver of fatal drug poisonings in the United States. Since its formation around 2011 out of the remnants of the Sinaloa Cartel-affiliated Milenio Cartel, the Jalisco Cartel has become wholly independent and now operates well beyond Mexico’s borders, with a presence in dozens of countries around the world and all 50 U.S. states. The Jalisco Cartel uses its vast financial resources, violence, bribery of corrupt officials, and franchise-based command structure to maintain and expand its dominance in Mexico’s illicit drug trade. Key members of the Jalisco Cartel are linked by blood ties or marriage to the Gonzalez-Valencia MLO, known as Los Cuinis, many of whose members and companies are under U.S. sanctions. Like the Sinaloa Cartel, the Jalisco Cartel reap billions of dollars in profit from the manufacture of methamphetamine and illicit fentanyl, and they are one of the main suppliers of cocaine to the U.S. market.

The Jalisco Cartel has become one of the largest producers and traffickers of illicit fentanyl, in both powder and pill form, to the United States. Although the Jalisco Cartel cannot match the Sinaloa Cartel’s fentanyl production capacity, they have flooded American streets with fentanyl, often mixed with other drugs like heroin, cocaine, and xylazine. The cartel has its own connections to precursor chemical suppliers in China to produce fentanyl and methamphetamine and exerts control over several seaports for importing the chemicals. They also control an extensive network of smuggling routes into the United States, and lucrative distribution hubs in major U.S. cities like Atlanta, Georgia.

The Jalisco Cartel uses bribery, intimidation, and extortion of government and private port officials to guarantee the safety and delivery of precursor chemical shipments from China, and its cocaine shipments from Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Unlike the Sinaloa Cartel’s use of tunnels, the Jalisco Cartel uses legal points of entry at the Southwest Border using trucking companies or personally owned vehicles to move their drugs into the United States.

Distribution in the United States2

Thousands of Sinaloa and Jalisco cartel-linked drug dealers in the United States bring illicit fentanyl, methamphetamine, and other drugs into American communities every day. A web of illicit drug wholesalers, only one step removed from the cartels in Mexico, operate in major cities throughout the United States, like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and others. Smaller branches of the cartels spread the drugs further, often using social media platforms and messaging applications to advertise their deadly products and recruit couriers and dealers. They supply networks of local independent drug trafficking groups, street crews, and gangs whose main aim is to get the illegal drugs into the hands of users – selling on the streets, over apps and social media, and in schools. Some gang members and independent traffickers are so prolific they have established direct contact with the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartel-connected
wholesalers and risen from street-level dealers to regional-level suppliers. Just like their Mexico-based criminal counterparts, neighborhood-based crews, local dealers, and gang members endanger U.S. communities by selling fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs, and committing shootings, murders, carjackings, assaults, and robberies.

Please be sure to read DTPM’s August Blog, Part 2, that will focus on the DEA’s response to the threats published in the National Drug Threat Assessment 2024.

DTPM’s Mission

DTPM’s mission is to help fight drug use and dependency. We offer drug testing solutions, both screening and confirmation testing, to a variety of testing facilities such as drug courts, treatment centers, physician office labs, reference labs and more. Our screening solutions provide flexibility to a testing site by offering simple point-of-care (POC) test cups or more specific instrumented drug immunoassays. DTPM also offers drug confirmation testing for those testing sites that require confirmatory results. General testing supplies such as gloves, lint-free wipes and pipette tips are also available. Contact us today to learn how DTPM can help you in this war against drugs in the United States.


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