“We didn't know what was happening with fentanyl until it was too late”

Todd Robinson, who was US consul in Barcelona between 2006 and 2009, has returned to Spain as one of the US anti-drug chiefs to strengthen collaboration between countries against drug trafficking.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
02 April 2024 Tuesday 10:22
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“We didn't know what was happening with fentanyl until it was too late”

Todd Robinson, who was US consul in Barcelona between 2006 and 2009, has returned to Spain as one of the US anti-drug chiefs to strengthen collaboration between countries against drug trafficking. Although statistics generally indicate that the use of synthetic opioids killed 100,000 people last year in the United States – compared to the 20,000 deaths it caused in 2019 – the drama has its own name: fentanyl. Robinson's workhorse focuses the interview at the Casa de América during a small gap in his busy schedule.

The US is suffering from the worst drug crisis in its history due to fentanyl. How do you get here?

The truth is that we didn't know what was happening. We had the same problems as other countries with cocaine, heroin or other organic drugs, but the synthetic ones slipped under the radar. Until it was too late: this is the message from the US. That is why we started the global coalition against synthetic drugs; We are a warning of what can happen if the authorities are not aware. Now, in the United States you can find fentanyl on social networks, without knowing that you are asking for it because it is even mixed with weight loss medications.

Where does the fentanyl that reaches the United States come from?

Without a doubt, Mexico. But the chemical precursors come from China. We are working very closely with our Mexican colleagues.

He has referred to the global coalition against fentanyl, but China does not want to be part of it.

It would be better if China decided to enter the coalition because we think they have a lot to teach, to show about their industry and their processes for monitoring chemicals. But the truth is that we are not going to wait for your entry. We will try to talk and carry out joint operations whether or not they are part of the coalition.

How are they combating this crisis within their borders?

I have been in the diplomatic service all my life. And this is the first administration that has provided serious resources to the US drug problem, putting the focus on the antidote. In all communities, in schools, in police forces and even in prisons for the first time. $42 billion has been allocated over the next five years to address this problem. A serious amount for a serious problem.

However, the demand for fentanyl continues to grow...

It is a problem, yes. Part of that budget is precisely intended to address demand. For the first time, the director of the National Anti-Drug Office is a doctor. Previously, that position was held by a former military general. That's part of the change in focus with this Administration: putting a West Virginia surgeon general in charge; one of the states most affected by synthetic drugs.

Has the fact that healthcare is not accessible to everyone affected the increase in traffic?

I don't think so. First, because healthcare is increasingly accessible to all Americans, but above all because social class does not matter when it comes to drug consumption. This crisis affects the rich, the poor and everyone in between.

What are the signs that should alert a government that fentanyl is a threat?

First, the incidence of deaths is increasing very rapidly. In 2019, fewer than 20,000 people in the United States died from some interaction with synthetic drugs. As of 2019, 100,000 people do it every year. They are impressive numbers. Second, the presence of criminal organizations from Mexico, Albania or Russia; the three large global groups in their distribution. Also focus on the age of the victims, because it affects more and more young people who purchase products through social networks. It is the most important danger: today people do not know if there is fentanyl in their cocaine, heroin or medications purchased online.

It refers to mafias from Mexico, Albania, Russia. Have they detected a connection with mafias in Spain?

In that sense, Spain is like the rest of the countries in the world. We are globally witnessing an increase in the use of synthetic drugs. In the US it is fentanyl, in Europe it is methamphetamine and in the Middle East it is Captagon. Criminal organizations do not respect borders; governments do. So, it is up to us to seek maximum collaboration. That's why I'm here in Spain.

You have met with the Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, what has he told you?

Part of my visit is to express our gratitude for the collaboration and cooperation we have in both Central America and Africa. We know that Africa is important for Spain. Therefore, part of our strategy is to do more in that area knowing that Spain is going to focus on the Sahel. Our relationship with Spain is close, direct and effective.

For Spain, one of the greatest threats comes from the Sahel. How can US aid materialize?

Information exchange. Both countries have great programs to collect information in the region and then be able to exchange it. But we can also help by training other countries in the region, near the Sahel: from training their police to strengthening their judicial structures, including aid to the economy.

Finally, should Spain prepare for a fentanyl crisis like the one in the US?

I can only speak about the US experience. We were not prepared for what happened with fentanyl. I don't know if it's going to be fentanyl or another synthetic drug here. But it is worth paying attention to the signs. I am aware that in Spain the authorities are aware of the problem; I don't want to say that they are not doing their job, but it is worth paying attention very early because it is a great danger.