Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
In May an undercover DEA agent asked John Seibel if he could make fentanyl pills that look like Xanax, a slender, banana-yellow pill for anxiety.
Siebel obliged, according to federal court records, and in addition to those, sold the agent thousands of the typical blue pills and others that resembled Altoid mints – with no markings.
The 25-year-old told the agent he didn’t use specific markings so the pills couldn’t be traced back to him. In case somebody should overdose and die.
Agents arrested Seibel in June and, according to the court records, a search of his home and those of his partners turned up a commercial grade pill press, a brick of fentanyl powder, nearly 8 pounds of fentanyl pills, 41 pounds of meth, several guns and $141,000 in cash.
The fentanyl seizure, while sizeable, was a drop in the bucket compared to what the Drug Enforcement Administration has taken off the streets of New Mexico this year.
For the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2021, agents seized 242 pounds of fentanyl, a whopping 900% increase over the prior fiscal year and well over the amount captured in the previous five fiscal years combined. For the first time, fentanyl seizure amounts actually surpassed heroin, which dropped to some of its lowest levels since 2016.
Despite those seizures, the amount of fentanyl that has slipped through the fingers of law enforcement has furthered an epidemic of overdoses in the state. Local authorities say fentanyl has overtaken local drug markets in places like Albuquerque, contributing to violent and property crimes committed by those who use it, deal it and steal it.
Albuquerque police Lt. Ryan Nelson, of APD’s Narcotics Unit, said the drug is everywhere and, unlike other hard drugs, often peddled at the street-level by users.
“Fentanyl is the No. 1 drug that we’re seeing right now – on the federal side and the state and local side – it’s in large quantities and there does seem to be more abundant traffickers …” Nelson said. “I think that has a lot to do with people trying to support their own fentanyl habits.”
On Sept. 27, for the first time in several years, the DEA issued a public safety warning due to the influx and mobilized the agency to tackle fentanyl.
But the drug shows no signs of slowing. The agency seized 22 pounds in October and, in November, agents seized 26 pounds of fentanyl powder from two passengers on separate Greyhound buses as they stopped in Albuquerque.
Profit-maker for cartels
Federal officials say the drug’s profit margins are unmatched and the competition is not even close.
Greg Millard, who runs the DEA’s El Paso Division, said a cartel can invest $5,000 in chemicals and produce $1.5 million worth of fentanyl. He said cartels buy precursor chemicals, which are legal, from Asia and make the drug in clandestine labs south of the border.
“With heroin, with cocaine, you have to grow a plant … With meth and fentanyl, it’s a chemical, you have to get the precursor chemicals and it’s a little easier,” Millard said.
He said the pills made by the cartels, blue and pressed to look like oxycodone, are the most frequent type seen on the streets.
He said the size, comparable to an aspirin, makes them easy to smuggle and therefore harder to detect.
“It’s easy to take 1,000, 2,000 pills – have someone body-carry it, hide it on their person, or hide it in their purse or their car, drive it across,” he said.
The amount of fentanyl seized dropped after the borders closed due to the pandemic, but Millard said cartels adapted. They used social media to recruit U.S. citizens and essential workers to get it across.
He said, once the drug reaches New Mexico, cartels still play a role in distribution but the DEA also sees a lot of “freelancers” selling the blue pills on the street-level.
Cases of people like Seibel, who authorities say pressed his own pills on this side of the border, are not nearly as common.
In 2017 Seibel was arrested after Albuquerque police allegedly found a pound of marijuana, $700 and a fully loaded pistol. That case was dismissed.
By 2021, federal authorities say he was selling massive quantities of fentanyl and meth, alongside his “right-hand man” Robert Pettit Sr., 51, and using the home of Barbara Dockery, 64, as a stash house.
Pettit, who went by “Preacher,” bought a commercial pill press in January on Seibel’s behalf, according to court records, sparking a monthslong DEA investigation. An undercover agent won Seibel’s trust and bought thousands of fentanyl pills, most of them homemade by Seibel and Pettit, between April and May.
At one point Seibel, described as “a highly sophisticated and dangerous drug dealer,” told the agent he didn’t put a marking on the pills because he “didn’t want to be charged with manslaughter,” according to court records.
Authorities say the comment revealed that Seibel was “very much aware of how lethal fentanyl is” and that the pills he made and sold were “likely to result in overdose deaths.”
ABQ drug market takeover
Lt. Nelson said five years ago it was meth flooding the streets of Albuquerque. Now, it’s fentanyl. He said the drug is so prevalent, heroin has grown scarce.
“Heroin used to be quite abundant. Now, it’s difficult to find – 90% of the time, if you’re looking for heroin, you’re going to get fentanyl,” he said. “It’s, by far, way more abundant than heroin is or was now.”
Nelson said with the new substance also came new sellers and a different marketplace, one that moved from the street corner to our fingertips.
“There is a very young crowd of people that are using platforms like social media to traffic drugs … That hasn’t been a thing in the past,” he said.
Nelson said the drug’s abundance has also attracted a more inexperienced group of dealers selling fentanyl. They are often users themselves and don’t need to know someone to get into the business.
“In terms of quantity, you can be a nobody – and you can go and buy 1,000 pills of fentanyl and you can start to sell today,” he said.
More recently, Nelson said, they have been seeing pills that are a mix of fentanyl and meth. Sellers and users tell them that’s what the people want.
“That’s the desired effect … the lows aren’t as low and the highs aren’t as high, the old school term of speed balling, it’s kind of like that,” he said. “When they smoke these pills, it creates a yellow streak across the foil. And that’s how they know it’s infused with meth … they call it yellow trails.”
So far in 2021, there have been at least 241 offenses involving fentanyl in the city, mostly drug charges, warrants and traffic offenses, and 11,866 doses seized, according to the Albuquerque Police Department’s Crime Analysis Unit. In the month of November, the number of fentanyl-related crimes overtook those involving meth – the first time any narcotic surpassed meth since January 2019.
Detectives said, more and more, they are seeing auto theft and property crime offenders propelled by a fentanyl addiction. Some, like Xavier Pino, appear to be prolific.
The 21-year-old is accused of committing 10 armed robberies, most of them in less than a month’s time. After his arrest, police report that Pino told them he robbed businesses to support a yearslong fentanyl habit – smoking up to 10 pills a day.
He said he would go straight from the robbery to his fentanyl dealer. Pino told police, “I’m on drugs, what do you expect?”
During his interrogation, Pino was having withdrawals. He was fidgety and had to lie on the floor at times to keep still. Pino told police “he didn’t have a choice” but to rob businesses to keep himself well.
“When I’m in this mindset, I’ll do whatever and whenever – I don’t give a (expletive) – to get what I need,” he said.
For the narcotics unit, Nelson said the influx of novice dealers selling fentanyl to strangers over social media makes their job easier.
“When you’re dealing with a veteran who’s been selling drugs their entire life, they take precautions that these people don’t take,” he said.
But there are downsides, too. Some that prove deadly.
“A lot of the drug dealers will bring weapons – anticipating that they have to protect themselves and who knows what they’re going to face. So it makes it a very volatile situation where everybody’s on edge,” Nelson said. “We saw that throughout the year, social media meets robberies gone wrong.”
Fentanyl pushing violence, homicides
As Albuquerque grapples with a record-breaking number of homicides, APD Deputy Commander Kyle Hartsock said at least a quarter of those started as drug robberies.
Of those cases, he said, the majority involve fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is the biggest drug that we see people trying to take from others or take the money they’re making from the fentanyl dealing,” Hartsock said.
To curb the violence and drugs, he said they started targeting the common denominator: social media.
“We’re seeing the drug market move from the streets to Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram,” Hartsock said. “I haven’t seen a TikTok drug dealer in Albuquerque yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time.”
Snapchat released a statement in October that it is working to remove the drug from its platform by streamlining requests related to criminal investigations and increasing proactive detection and enforcement rates.
Hartsock said the sellers who market on social media are blatant and often charismatic, flaunting pictures of fentanyl with messages like “Thanksgiving Sale” and a list of prices.
“They have sales on these things and they’ll put it in there like it’s an Etsy order and you’re just ordering fentanyl,” Hartsock said.
For those selling drugs like fentanyl over social media, Hartsock wants you to know, your next buyer could be an undercover officer. Or it could be a robber.
He said witnesses in a recent case told police the robbery crew scrolled social media, looking for “people selling blue pills.” The dealer they chose ended up shot to death.
Most robberies go south when the seller tries to resist in some way.
“It could be anything from them trying to raise a gun to defend themselves, to them just refusing to go along with the robbery,” Hartsock said. “… They’re so volatile how these things happen. One little, small thing, and then the whole thing crumbles.”
Hartsock said those dealers who live through an ordeal sometimes seek revenge, furthering the violence. He said the trend is “very concerning.”
Sometimes the violence is cyclical. Suspects can become victims.
In April, Hartsock said, Ryan Saavedra Jr. told his girlfriend to drive away after a fentanyl deal went south and the robbers fired on the car, killing the 19-year-old. At the time, Saavedra was awaiting trial in a case where he and other teens allegedly planned a drug robbery over social media that left a man dead in a West Side cul-de-sac.
“It’s obvious that the drug is growing in Albuquerque, and in terms of people wanting to use it. It’s different than every other drug out there – how potent it is, and how easy it is to conceal and distribute,” Hartsock said. “The sad part is I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon – we just want to try to tamp down how easy it is to get, slow down some of the violence associated with it.”