'I Don't Think Americans Realize Their Life Could Be on the Line': Pills Tainted With Fentanyl and Methamphetamine Sold in Mexican Pharmacies Reports from the Los Angeles Times and Vice found that a striking portion of pills marketed as legitimate medication are laced with potent and illicit drugs.
Back in March, the U.S. Embassy issued a warning about counterfeit pills sold in Mexican pharmacies, telling Americans to "exercise caution" when and if they intend to make purchases. However, the breadth of risk may be broader than assumed.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that of 55 pills purchased from 29 pharmacies across eight cities in Mexico nearly half (28) were illegitimate. Forty of the pills were opioids, wherein 15 were counterfeit, and most contained fentanyl.
Another investigation by Vice, in collaboration with drug testing company Bunk Police, yielded similar results: six of 22 opioids were faulty — four came back positive for fentanyl, and two contained traces of the animal tranquilizer Xylazine.
Reporters from both investigations found that most pharmacies would sell the "medication," often on a per-pill basis, and without a prescription (opioids or benzos require a prescription issued by Mexico's Health Ministry). Vice found that only major pharmacy chains refused to sell controlled substances without a prescription. However, both outlets found that many small pharmacies in tourist areas had little regulation, and getting the pills often required a simple ask. Sometimes the sales clerks fished loose pills out of plastic bags or even went to a backroom to retrieve "hidden pill containers."
In popular tourist hubs like Cabo San Lucas, Nuevo Progreso, and Tijuana, there are sometimes multiple pharmacies per block, with some selling full bottles of oxycodone (which later turned out to be counterfeit) for as little as $40, the LA Times noted.
While the legitimacy of opioids varied across both investigations, Adderall proved to be the most consistently fake, containing other substances at a jarringly frequent rate.
The LA Times found that of the 15 "Adderall" tablets purchased, 12 were counterfeit and contained other substances such as methamphetamine and MDMA. All nine of Vice's Adderall tablets were illegitimate (six contained meth, two contained an "unidentifiable substance," and one came back positive for Aminorex — a stimulant that has been illegal in the U.S. since 1972).
The reports identified some clear warning signs, such as misspellings on pill bottles or pills that crumbled easily. But many came in bottles with similar branding to American medication; some were even sealed.
"I don't think Americans realize that their life could be on the line purchasing something from here," Adam Auctor, founder of the Bunk Police, told Vice. "I think people trust pharmacies to keep them safe and I want Americans traveling in Mexico to know that pharmacies in Mexico are not safe."
In 2022, the DEA found that six out of 10 fentanyl-laced pills contained a potentially lethal dose of the drug — an uptick from four out of 10 in 2021. The agency says the pills are being "mass-produced" by the Mexican cartels Sinaloa and Jalisco.
"The kind of pills that are turning up in busts in the U.S. pretty much exactly match the pills you turned up in your investigation, so to me it seems likely that all these pills are coming from the same place," Ben Westhoff, author of Fentanyl Inc, told Vice.