NEW YORK — The coronavirus is dealing a gut punch to the illegal drug trade, authorities say, paralyzing economies, closing borders and severing supply chains in China that traffickers rely on for the chemicals to make such profitable drugs as methamphetamine and the powerful opioid fentanyl.
One of the main suppliers that shut down is in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the global outbreak.
Interviews with nearly two dozen law enforcement officials and trafficking experts found that Mexican and Colombian cartels are still plying their trade, as evidenced by a bust last month in which nearly $30 million worth of street drugs was seized in a new smuggling tunnel connecting a warehouse in Tijuana to southern San Diego. But the stay-home orders that have turned cities into ghost towns are disrupting steps including production, transport and sales.
Along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, through which the vast majority of illegal drugs cross, the normally bustling vehicle traffic that smugglers use for cover has slowed to a trickle. Bars, nightclubs and motels across the country that are ordinarily fertile marketplaces for drug dealers have shuttered. And prices for drugs in short supply have soared to gouging levels.
“They 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?”
But the COVID-19 pandemic also has limited law enforcement’s effectiveness, as departments cope with drug investigators working remotely, falling ill and navigating a new landscape in which their own activities have become more conspicuous. In Los Angeles County, half of the narcotics detectives have been put on patrol duty, potentially imperiling long-term investigations.
For sellers, virtually every illicit drug has been affected, with supply-chain disruptions at both the wholesale and retail level. Traffickers are stockpiling narcotics and cash along the border, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration even reports a decrease in money-laundering and online drug sales on the so-called dark web.
“The godfathers of the cartels are scrambling,” said Phil Jordan, a former director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center.
Cocaine prices are up 20% 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.
Published: April 20, 2020
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