Coronavirus hits global drug trade, experts say
Law enforcement officials and trafficking experts told The Associated Press that the lockdowns have turned cities into ghost towns and are disrupting everything from production to transport to sales.
“(Drug traffickers) are facing a supply problem and a demand problem,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former official with CISEN, the Mexican intelligence agency. “Once you get them to the market, who are you going to sell to?”
Virtually every illicit drug has been impacted, with supply chain disruptions at both the wholesale and retail level. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has even reported a decrease in money laundering and online drug sales on the dark web.
Cocaine prices are up 20 percent or more in some cities. Heroin has become harder to find in Denver and Chicago, while supplies of fentanyl are falling in Houston and Philadelphia. In Los Angeles, the price of methamphetamine has more than doubled in recent weeks to $1,800 per pound.
Synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl have been among the most affected, in large part because they rely on precursor chemicals that Mexican cartels import from China, cook into drugs on an industrial scale and then ship to the U.S.
Though some clandestine labs that make fentanyl from scratch have popped up sporadically in Mexico, cartels are still very much reliant upon Chinese companies to get the precursor drugs.
Huge amounts of these mail-order components can be traced to a single, state-subsidized company in Wuhan that shut down after the outbreak earlier this year, said Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, which monitors Chinese websites selling fentanyl.
“The quarantine of Wuhan and all the chaos there definitely affected the fentanyl trade, particularly between China and Mexico,” said Ben Westhoff, author of “Fentanyl, Inc.”
“The main reason China has been the main supplier is the main reason China is the supplier of everything — it does it so cheaply,” Westhoff said. “There was really no cost incentive for the cartels to develop this themselves.”
But prices across China for precursors of fentanyl, methamphetamine and cutting agents have risen between 25 percent and 400 percent since late February, said Logan Pauley, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies.
Some cartels have begun taking steps to decrease their reliance on overseas suppliers by enlisting scientists to make their own precursor chemicals even as drug precursor plants in China are slowly reopening.
Nonetheless, narcotics are still making their way into the U.S. Last month, U.S. authorities seized $30 million worth of street drugs in a smuggling tunnel connecting a warehouse in Tijuana to southern San Diego.