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Mexican and American Officials Call for Action After Investigation into Counterfeit Medicine

Pharmacy in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, just across the Texas border. Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Pharmacy in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, just across the Texas border. Michael Stravato for The New York Times

Officials in the U.S. and Mexico called for action Wednesday on an "alarming" investigation conducted by the Los Angeles Times, which revealed that several pharmacies in Mexico are selling counterfeit medication laced with powerful narcotics, including fentanyl and methamphetamine.

According to the report, lawmakers in the U.S. called on the federal government to investigate the issue, while others called for pressure on Mexican authorities or new legislation. Responding to the calls by both governments, Gilda Alejandra Llera Muñoz, a federal prosecutor in Mexico, said that her office plans to investigate the findings, describing it as a new "modus operandi" that brings to light questions like whether pharmacies are deliberately breaking the law.

“This is a very interesting and disturbing new modus operandi by the cartels. But we have always known the cartels are well organized and well financed and usually at least one step ahead of the government when it comes to new technologies used to enhance their operations,” said Robert Chacon, a Veteran FBI Special Agent.

“The U.S. should make every effort to address the new front in the fentanyl crisis. This would include everything that can be done within the U.S. as well as assisting the Mexican government in its battles with the cartels. The FBI and the DEA already maintain robust presence within Mexico and have for decades. This presence of FBI and DEA agents stationed all over Mexico should be employed in the effort to stop fentanyl from being distributed via Mexican pharmacies,” Chacon said to The Foreign Desk.

Speaking to the LA Times, Llera said authorities in Mexico "need to find where in the process they are faking the pills" and determine "if pharmacies are involved in criminal activity, or they do not know if they are selling medications with fentanyl."

Earlier in February, reporters from the LA Times traveled to three cities in northwestern Mexico and tested 17 pills purchased over the counter from pharmacies. According to reports, 12 tested positive for fentanyl or methamphetamine.

The findings from the media outlet echoed similar statements from a recent UCLA study that examined 45 pills bought at pharmacies in Northwestern Mexico. Drug market experts familiar with the issue say that the most likely source is the drug cartels looking to spread their customer base with cheap and easy-to-make fentanyl.

Chacon told The Foreign Desk that while vacationing in Mexico he got a bad sunburn and needed pain medication and went into the nearby Mexican pharmacy asking for Tylenol or another pain reliever. “I was offered Tylenol with codeine, Percocet and other even more powerful narcotic drugs, with no prescription,” he said.

“I found this shocking as most of what was being offered to me over the counter would have required a doctor’s prescription here in the U.S. It still concerns me that such powerful narcotics were so easily available and with this new information that people seeking fentanyl laced drugs can travel to Mexico and walk into a pharmacy to obtain such drugs is a frightening new development in the fentanyl crisis,” explained the former FBI Agent.

According to Llera, and her agency, the cartels are producing and distributing contaminated fake pills like the ones LA Times reporters bought last month in pharmacies in Tijuana, Cabo San Lucas, and San Jose del Cabo.

“I 100% agree with the assessment of drug market experts, including at least one federal drug prosecutor in Mexico, who believe that the cartels are behind this recent discovery,” explained Chacon.

For several years now, fentanyl has been appearing in pills and powders purchasable on the streets and in medications offered at legitimate pharmacies to tourists, signaling a new shift in the fentanyl crisis.

Speaking to the LA Times, U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and member of the U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking said that the reporting was "alarming" and called on the federal government for a swift response.

"I urge the State Department to consider issuing an advisory to alert travelers to this potential threat, and I call on the DEA and FDA to immediately investigate these findings," Markey said. "No one should suffer an overdose from a counterfeit drug, especially one sold at a pharmacy."

In a statement released to the Times, Jeremy Khan, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said that while the agency does not regulate products intended for other countries' markets, the FDA "recommends that U.S. consumers obtain all prescription drugs from a licensed pharmacy and avoid products not intended for the U.S. market as they may not have reliable evidence of safety and effectiveness."

The Biden administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy said that it plans to work with the Mexican government to "crackdown on trafficking operations."

The State Department also released a statement saying that the agency has "no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas" but did not go into detail regarding the impact of counterfeit medication on American citizens.

In early February, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that he was "not immediately aware of individual cases." Price did note that the State Department is "intimately aware of the threat posed by fentanyl, not only to U.S. tourists in Mexico but to Americans and people around the world."

According to Chacon, Congress should “pass laws increasing the penalties for Americans traveling to Mexico to obtain drugs that would require a prescription within the U.S..”

The former FBI Special Agent noted that he was “sympathetic to the U.S. Constitutional concerns such laws might impact” and for “U.S. citizens who cannot afford prescription drugs here in the U.S. but can buy the same drugs in Mexico at a fraction of the cost.”

“Congress should continue efforts to bring down the costs of prescription drugs here in the U.S. which could bring down the demand in Mexico for those drugs by US citizens,” said Chacon.

Lawmakers in Congress have called on the administration and federal government to take action in response to the findings, urging the President to do more to address the crisis. Republican and Democratic Senators from border states have called the reporters concerning and could threaten young Americans at home and Americans vacationing and traveling to Mexico.

“I think U.S. and Mexican officials are likely still digesting this new trend and relying on new intelligence regarding this new modus operandi of the cartels,” said Chacon.

Related Story: Fentanyl Seized at Borders Could Kill U.S. Population Five Times Over

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