Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Increased abuse of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl fueled a 25% increase in the number of drug overdose deaths in New Mexico last year, according to state and federal officials, part of a national trend that began before the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year.
The state’s overdose death toll jumped to 721 in 2020 compared with 574 the year before, an increase of 147 fatalities, according to provisional numbers gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and broken down by QuoteWizard, a division of LendingTree.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. It has legitimate medical uses, including treatment of cancer patients and in surgical anesthesia.
But it’s also being smuggled into the United States from Mexico in alarming quantities and is most often trafficked illegally in the form of counterfeit pills known as “blues.”
“The pervasiveness of fentanyl on the illicit drug market in New Mexico is one of the most daunting public safety issues we face,” said Fred Federici, acting U.S. Attorney for New Mexico. “Over the past several years, we have seen the prevalence of fentanyl rise from occasional seizures to an alarming number of cases.”
The acting administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration, D. Christopher Evans, has said the agency is focusing on fentanyl smuggling and distribution out of Mexico. In unveiling “Project Wave Breaker” last month, Evans called fentanyl “a very real public health, public safety, and national security threat.”
Dr. Robert Kelly, substance abuse epidemiology section manager at the New Mexico Department of Health, said last week that the opioid abuse has helped drive the higher death toll in New Mexico. “Fentanyl is a huge problem,” he said. “It is where we are seeing the increase.”
The problem is national in scope and New Mexico’s increase, while significant, was well below the national average of 38% and below the increases in neighboring Texas (34%), Arizona (34%) and Colorado (42%).
Fake oxycodone tablets
In New Mexico, fentanyl is typically found in counterfeit blue pills made to look like prescription 30 milligram oxycodone tablets. The pills started showing up in New Mexico more than five years ago and over that time the price of a single pill has dropped from $30 to between $10 and $20.
DEA laboratories, in a recent report, found that one in four counterfeit pills containing fentanyl seized by agents in arrests around the United States contained a potentially lethal dose.
“In addition to the dangerous criminal element of drug trafficking, the manufacture of fentanyl, primarily in pill form known as ‘blues,’ takes place in clandestine labs, usually outside the United States with little or no quality control,” Federici said. “This presents the inherent risk of overdose due to the inconsistent levels in a given dose.”
The New Mexico Department of Health’s Kelly said the danger presented by fentanyl cannot be overstated.
“Fentanyl dosages are measured in microns,” Kelly said. “The difference of a micron or two of fentanyl can lead to an overdose.”
He said the department has received information that fentanyl also is being used in pills resembling Ecstasy, an illegal drug that is not an opioid.
“That is something to be worried about,” Kelly said. “People think they are getting one drug and they get another. We are really worried about that.”
To a lesser extent in New Mexico, fentanyl is also found mixed with other illicit drugs like heroin and methamphetamine.
There are test strips approved by the federal government that can detect fentanyl, but Kelly said state law classifies the strips as drug paraphernalia and their sale is prohibited.
China supplies drug cartels
Evans said most of the fentanyl sold illegally in the United States is smuggled in from Mexico and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized more fentanyl in the first four months of 2021 than in all of 2020. As of April, CBP seized 6,949 pounds of fentanyl at the border compared to 4,776 pounds in 2020.
The DEA and other law enforcement agencies along the border find fentanyl in two forms – white powder of pure fentanyl and counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl.
China supplies fentanyl in two ways to Mexican drug cartels – the finished product or the precursor chemicals that the cartels can use to manufacture the drug in their own laboratories.
Two major drug cartels – the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel – are the major players in the fentanyl market.
Both cartels have access to Mexico’s western ports and can take control of the drug or the chemical precursors at the docks.
The organizations use their own smuggling networks or subcontract to others to bring the drugs into the U.S. mainly through commercial transportation.
Fentanyl courier a fugitive
Most of the powdered fentanyl seized in New Mexico is moving through the state to points in the Midwest and East Coast.
For example, in April 2019 Daniela Cota-Guitimea, 20, was a fentanyl courier traveling on an Amtrack train that stopped in Albuquerque.
During what agents call a “meet and greet,” DEA agents asked if they could check her luggage and she agreed.
Agents found bundles wrapped in clear plastic in a false compartment in the bottom of her duffle bag.
The bundles contained more than 14 pounds of fentanyl – an amount prosecutors said in court filings was “enough to administer a fatal overdose to the entire population of the District of New Mexico.”
According to court records, she told agents she had packaged the bundles and was paid $2,500 to transport the drugs from Los Angeles to Chicago.
Cota-Guitimea, who pleaded not guilty, initially was held in a federal detention facility pending trial. Her attorney appealed and asked that she be released, arguing that she was a U.S. citizen who worked on the farms in the area around El Centro, California. The attorney said she had been raised by an aunt in Tucson while her mother and stepfather lived in Mexico. She had three small children ages 1 through 5.
Prosecutors argued Cota-Guitimea was not a typical courier, but an active participant in the packaging and the planning to get the drugs to Chicago.
U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez ordered her released to a halfway house in August 2019. Cota-Guitimea absconded in September 2019 and remains a fugitive.