The Rise of Fentanyl: El Chapo’s Sons Charged with Smuggling the Deadly Drug into the US

With El Chapo in jail, his sons took over the family business and established a network of labs producing fentanyl. The Sinaloa cartel has since become a major player in the US's synthetic opioid crisis, as fentanyl kills more Americans than the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars combined.

For years, the Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, made a fortune trafficking cocaine into the United States. But when Guzmán was jailed for life, the cartel underwent a generational shift, with his sons taking over and steering the business into fentanyl.

According to a recent indictment unsealed in Manhattan, the Guzmán Salazar brothers established a network of labs that churned out massive quantities of the cheap, deadly drug, which they smuggled into the United States. Fentanyl is now responsible for more American deaths than the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars combined.

The Sinaloa cartel’s move into fentanyl came as the United States was grappling with a synthetic opioid epidemic. Aggressive over-prescribing of the synthetic opioid oxycodone had led to widespread addiction, and as authorities clamped down on its prescription, users moved to heroin, which the Sinaloa cartel happily supplied.

But making its own fentanyl in small, easily concealed labs was a game changer for the cartel. A single cartel “cook” can press fentanyl into 100,000 counterfeit pills every day to fool Americans into thinking they’re taking Xanax, Percocet or oxycodone. The pills are then smuggled over the border to supply what one of El Chapo’s sons called “streets of junkies.”

Fentanyl is so cheap to make that the cartel reaps massive profits even wholesaling the drug at 50 cents per pill, prosecutors said.

But the drug’s potency makes it particularly dangerous. The narcotic dose of fentanyl is so close to the lethal dose that a pill meant to ensure a high for a habituated user can easily kill a less experienced person taking something they didn’t know was fentanyl.

The cartel’s fentanyl labs are concentrated in the northern state of Sinaloa, where the Chapitos have established themselves as the new leaders of the Sinaloa cartel. To protect and expand that business, the brothers have turned to grotesque violence, according to the indictment.

Enforcers Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar and Jesus Alfredo Guzmán Salazar are the lead defendants among 23 associates charged in the New York indictment. Ovidio Guzmán López, who allegedly pushed the cartel into fentanyl, is charged in another indictment in the same district. Mexico arrested him in January, and the US government has requested his extradition.

The wide-ranging indictment against the Guzmán Salazar brothers details their penchant for feeding enemies to their pet tigers and describes how they tortured two Mexican federal agents, ripping through one’s muscles with a corkscrew then stuffing the holes with chile peppers before shooting him.

Although the cartel does some lab testing on its product, it conducts more grisly human testing on kidnapped rivals or addicts who are injected until they overdose, according to the indictment. The purity of the cartel’s fentanyl “varies greatly depending on the method and skill of the particular manufacturer.” After a user overdosed on one batch, it was still shipped to the United States.

The rise of fentanyl has prompted once-unthinkable calls for US military intervention across the border. Some politicians argue that the cartels should be branded terrorist organizations.

But experts say Mexican President López Obrador is one obstacle to slowing the cartels’