Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The U.S. for some time has been awash in cheap heroin and methamphetamine supplied by Mexican drug cartels.
Now, authorities are sounding the alarm over a flood of an even more potent and deadly drug – fentanyl – crossing the border and heading for big cities on the East Coast.
Every month it seems there is a new record-breaking seizure of the deadly synthetic opioid.
• In April, a tractor-trailer was stopped by police near Kearney, Neb., with 118 pounds of pure fentanyl – enough to kill 26 million people. Like most fentanyl shipments, it was headed to the East Coast where the Sinaloa Cartel has taken root.
• In March, narcotics agents in New York City arrested Francisco Quiroz-Zamora, 41, known as “Gordo,” or the Fat One, who they say had direct ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. Agents seized more than 44 pounds of fentanyl in a raid on a Bronx hotel and had another 100-pound seizure attributed to his organization. Quiroz-Zamora is charged with setting up the smuggling operation from Mexico to Arizona to New York, where the operation arranged the sale of the drugs in New York City.
• In February, federal agents and local police in the Boston area arrested Roberto Contreras, 42, who had ties to Sinaloa Cartel networks that were distributing heroin and fentanyl. Authorities seized 33 pounds of fentanyl – which prosecutors said was enough of the drug to theoretically kill every person in Massachusetts.
• And Mexican police last August and again in January seized more than 100 pounds of fentanyl in two separate cases when they stopped vehicles heading to the U.S. border. The potential overdose deaths were estimated in the millions.
The number of overdose deaths can be overstated depending on whether the drug has been diluted with lactose or some other water-soluble agent. Even so, the drug is exceptionally deadly and users typically have no way of knowing the strength of a particular dose.
Originates in China
Most of the fentanyl coming into the country enters through the Southwest border.
But it originates in China, where the chemical industry has boomed over the past few decades to a point where Chinese regulators and law enforcement have difficulty controlling what goes on in the more than 160,000 chemical plants and laboratories.
China has become the second largest producer of pharmaceuticals in the world behind the United States.
Until 2015, it was legal in China for companies to ship fentanyl anywhere in the world. Even after it was outlawed, Chinese firms using front companies have continued to ship fentanyl using regular mail or other shipping companies into the United States to fill orders made over the internet.
The direct shipments from China to the U.S. tend to be smaller amounts – a few ounces to a package.
After fentanyl fell under government control, Chinese companies began making variations of fentanyl until the government outlawed those so-called “analog” drugs.
China remains the main source of the drugs shipped to Mexican cartels at the dirt cheap price of $3,000 to $5,000 a kilogram – which the cartels can turn into millions of dollars in the United States.
Chinese companies ship either finished fentanyl or precursor drugs (NPP or ANPP) that are converted to fentanyl.
“The profits are so high and it is fairly inexpensive to the cartels,” DEA Agent Melvin Patterson said.
East coast drug
The destination for fentanyl tends to be the same: the East Coast.
Police in Louisiana last month seized 22 pounds of fentanyl in the SUV of two Texas men heading east to deliver the drugs.
New Mexico authorities seized 10.5 pounds of fentanyl discovered among duffel bags filled with 140 pounds of cocaine in a semi-truck outside of Lordsburg on its way to New Jersey. The truck driver was sentenced last month to 10 years in prison.
“U.S. demand for fentanyl and all drugs drives all of this activity,” a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman said in a telephone interview.
The Sinaloa Cartel doesn’t bother with retail-level commerce, according to the DEA.
It uses New York as a destination to deliver large wholesale shipments to middlemen. They typically are local Dominican traffickers but also include traditional mob families in the New York area.
Those groups distribute to markets in New England, Pennsylvania, Baltimore and other places where the opioid crisis is raging.
The fentanyl demand began to take off in 2015.
At that time Customs and Border Protection agents didn’t even keep track of fentanyl seizures because they were so few and so small.
That changed quickly, and from October 2016 through September 2017, CBP seized 1,485 pounds at ports of entry either through the mail or in vehicles crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.
In the same time frame, the Southwest border was swamped by other drugs, as seizures of methamphetamine increased by 63 percent and heroin by 49 percent, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The western United States, including New Mexico, appears to have less of an appetite for fentanyl than the Northeast and Midwest.
But DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Albuquerque office Rod Riddle said fentanyl is becoming more available in pill form on Albuquerque streets.
“Some overdoses attributed to a combination of drugs are probably fentanyl in combination with other drugs,” Riddle said.
Toxicology tests for fentanyl are more expensive and take more time because the amount of the drug that can kill is so small, that it can be months before an overdose can be tied directly to fentanyl.
In 2016, there were more than 20 overdose deaths attributed to fentanyl in New Mexico – a state where heroin and methamphetamine of high purity are relatively cheap.
Most of those deaths appeared to be linked to a single source of fentanyl-laced pills sold in the southern part of the state.
New Mexico was once one of the top states for drug overdose deaths, mainly due to heroin use, but dropped out of the top 10 when overdose death rates in other states skyrocketed – fueled by fentanyl-laced heroin and fentanyl pills disguised as prescription pain medications.
Fentanyl is a powerful painkiller drug for cancer patients and some people with chronic pain due to degenerative bone diseases.
On the legal market it comes in time-release patches.
But it is deadly, and 2 milligrams of the drug can lead to a fatal overdose even among regular opioid users.
It can also be absorbed through the skin and inhaled if police open a suspected drug package.
The danger posed by the drug caused the DEA to stop “field testing” drugs outside of a laboratory setting, Patterson said.
Field tests give police a preliminary finding that drugs are present, but those tests have to be confirmed by a full laboratory analysis.
City police departments in New York and Houston and state police in Arizona and Oregon have also stopped using field tests because of the danger posed to officers.
Stopping field tests led to case backlogs in those areas and, as a compromise, the field tests are performed in a lab setting where officers wear protective gear.
No police deaths have been blamed on fentanyl, but officers around the country have suffered ill effects after coming into contact with the drug even when it is mixed with other drugs like heroin.
Dilution = profit
According to DEA agents, there are several types of “labs” operating in Mexico and all the major cartels have their own operations.
Right now, agents don’t know of any “super lab” in Mexico that makes fentanyl from scratch.
The more sophisticated labs convert the precursor chemical compounds received from China into fentanyl that can average between 50 to 80 percent purity and then dilute the fentanyl by cutting it with lactose or another water soluble agent.
According to the DEA, Chinese chemists traveled to Mexico to demonstrate the process to cartel operatives.
Done correctly, “cutting” the fentanyl is a time-consuming process compared to diluting heroin or cocaine and labs have been known to cut corners.
There are labs that simply dilute the fentanyl that arrives from China. Others make counterfeit oxycodone or hydrocodone pills from the diluted fentanyl. Some labs combine the operations.
Fentanyl seized at U.S. ports of entry averages about 7 percent purity.
By diluting the fentanyl on the Mexican side of the border, the cartels increase their own profits.
They can also increase the danger to U.S. consumers who don’t know how much fentanyl they may be getting in a single dose.
“It is a very risky game for users,” the DEA’s Patterson said.