"We didn't know what was going on with the 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 cooperation between countries against drug trafficking.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
02 April 2024 Tuesday 11:23
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"We didn't know what was going on with the 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 cooperation between countries against drug trafficking. Even if the statistics state, in general, that the consumption of synthetic opioids killed 100,000 people last year in the USA - compared to the 20,000 deaths it caused in 2019 -, the drama has its own name: fentanyl. Robinson's workhorse focuses the interview at Casa d'América during a small gap in his busy schedule.

The United States is experiencing the worst drug crisis in its history due to fentanyl. How do you get here?

The truth is, we didn't know what was going on. We had the same problems as other countries with cocaine, heroin or other organic drugs, but the synthetics infiltrated under the radar. Until it was too late: is the message from the US. That's 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 media without knowing you're asking for it, because it's even mixed with weight loss drugs.

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

Without a doubt, from Mexico. But the chemical precursors are sold by China. We work 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 processes to monitor chemicals, but the truth is that we will not wait for their entry. We will try to talk and conduct joint operations whether they are part of the coalition or not.

How do they combat this crisis within their borders?

I have been in the diplomatic service for almost 48 years. And this is the first Administration that has provided serious resources regarding the drug problem in the US, focusing on the antidote; in every community, 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 the problem. A serious amount for a serious problem.

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

It's a problem, yes. Part of this budget is precisely intended to address demand. For the first time the director of the National Office against Drugs is a doctor. The post was previously held by a former military general. This is part of the change in focus with this administration: putting a surgeon general from West Virginia, one of the states most affected by synthetic drugs, at the helm.

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

I do not think so. First, because health care is increasingly accessible to all Americans, but above all because social class does not matter when it comes to drug use. 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, which increases very quickly. In 2019 in the United States less than 20,000 people died from some interaction with synthetic drugs. As of 2019, there are 100,000 people every year. These are impressive numbers. Second, the presence of criminal organizations from Mexico, Albania or Russia; the three major global groups in terms of distribution. It is also necessary to focus on the age of the victims because it affects more and more young people who purchase products through social networks. It's the biggest danger: People these days don't know if there's fentanyl in their cocaine, heroin or drugs they buy online.

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

In this sense, Spain is like the rest of the countries in the world. We see a global increase in the use of synthetic drugs. In the US it is fentanyl; in Europe, methamphetamine, and in the Middle East, captagon. Criminal organizations do not respect borders; governments, yes. Then, it's up to us to seek maximum collaboration. That's why I'm here, in Spain.

Has he met with the Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, what has he conveyed to him?

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

For Spain, one of the most important threats comes from the Sahel. How can aid from the United States materialize?

Exchange of information. We both have big programs to get information in the region and then be able to exchange it, but we can also help by training other countries in the region, close to the Sahel: from police training to strengthening judicial structures, as well as 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 will be fentanyl or some other synthetic drug here, but the signs are worth paying attention to. 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 to it very early, because it is a great danger.