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‘Mexican Oxy’ moves north

A single legal OxyContin pill is smaller than a fingertip. Opiate painkillers have been subject to a regulatory crackdown. (Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer)

A single legal OxyContin pill is smaller than a fingertip. Opiate painkillers have been subject to a regulatory crackdown. (Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Last October, Victor Mendoza-Chavarin was broke, out of work and living in Tijuana when he was approached by “a man” at a party asking him if he wanted to run drugs.

Mendoza, an American citizen by birth, said he told the man no, but the unnamed drug dealer was persistent.

“I didn’t have work and finally agreed to do it,” Mendoza told federal agents. He was promised $2,000 on delivery.

Mendoza met with two people he said he didn’t know and was given $300 to buy a cellphone and a train ticket on Amtrak to Denver.

He then traveled to Los Angeles where he met yet another man he didn’t know, who put bundles into his duffle bag and green satchel.

Mendoza was instructed to call a telephone number when he reached Raton to receive further instructions.

Stamped to look like OxyContin, the blue pills seized by the DEA were filled with heroin. (Courtesy of DEA)

Stamped to look like OxyContin, the blue pills seized by the DEA were filled with heroin. (Courtesy of DEA)

But Mendoza never made it out of the train station in Albuquerque, where he was greeted by federal agents. He allowed his luggage to be searched, and was arrested for transporting heroin after agents found the drugs in the green satchel and inside a tennis shoe in his duffle bag.

In all, agents found five oblong bundles of pills containing approximately 12,000 blue tablets. The pills field-tested positive for heroin.

Mendoza’s story is so common that these drug arrests hardly ever make the news unless challenged by civil liberties attorneys.

But the drugs Mendoza was carrying for his unnamed bosses were not common.

The drugs were heroin pills – “Mexican Oxy.” Knockoffs designed to look like pharmaceutical painkillers.

When the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies broke the back of the methamphetamine “super labs” through regulatory changes and enforcement actions, the cartels set up their own labs south of the border, importing chemicals from Asia.

When Colombian cartels couldn’t meet the demand on the U.S. East Coast for white heroin, the Mexican cartels stepped in and began manufacturing their own white heroin for distribution there.

When fatal overdose rates from prescription opiate abuse among teens and teens who moved on to heroin went through the roof, federal and state agencies spent years tightening regulations and increasing enforcement on prescription opiate abuse.

So it stood to reason that the cartels would fill the growing gap in the illicit pharmaceutical market.

And federal agents waited for Mexican Oxy to show up on the street.

Meanwhile, Mendoza, the canary in the latest drug coal mine, pleaded guilty to possession of heroin with intent to distribute and was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison with a recommendation that he take GED classes.

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez called the Mendoza case “unique” so far, but one that demonstrates the agility of the Mexican drug cartels.

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez says, “The cartels are able to move into whatever illegal market they find.”  (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez says, “The cartels are able to move into whatever illegal market they find.” (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Right now, it shows New Mexico being used as an artery for shipment elsewhere,” he said. “But the cartels are able to move into whatever illegal market they find. The bottom line is it’s about money and greed.”

Mendoza was a dead end – the very definition of a drug mule. He didn’t know anyone and could provide no information to federal agents that would help them trace the source of the drugs he was carrying.

So the federal agents waited.

They had waited almost a year when they found Mexican Oxy being sold in Camden, N.J., and Massachusetts. Not a lot, but enough to let agents know Mexican Oxy was in the states and on the streets in late September.

A chemical analysis of the pills seized in New Jersey found they contained a combination of heroin, pharmaceutical morphine and fentanyl.

Simple progression

The dangers of legal prescription opiates like OxyContin – the ease of addiction and potential overdoses – have been well documented.

“Any patient can be over-prescribed,” Martinez said in an interview. “We’ve seen the progression of addiction in people with no criminal backgrounds.”

That progression is simple. A person starts out on prescription opiates for pain problems, moves into pill addiction and then on to heroin when he or she can no longer obtain the prescription opiates.

Now, authorities say there is a new threat looming in the illegal drug trade. It’s “Mexican Oxy,” a heroin-based drug manufactured to look like a knockoff of the painkillers manufactured and sold in the U.S.

Mexican criminal organizations have been making knockoffs of American pharmaceuticals – like Viagra – for years.

Increased regulation of opiate painkillers has led cartels into the market with knockoffs. (Toby Talbot/The Associated Press)

Increased regulation of opiate painkillers has led cartels into the market with knockoffs. (Toby Talbot/The Associated Press)

And since the cartels have become expert at identifying market niches among American consumers, it was an expected development in some circles of federal law enforcement.

The motive for the heroin-based knockoffs is money. Heroin tends to be considerably cheaper than prescription pharmaceuticals, so the knockoffs sold at prescription pill prices have a higher profit margin.

Typically, in Albuquerque, a 30 milligram pharmaceutical opiate will sell on the street for $20 to $30 for a four-to-six-hour high. The pills are taken orally, crushed and snorted; or crushed, heated in water and used intravenously.

A few grams of heroin can sell for $100 to $120 and normally last a single addict a few days if the addict isn’t on a binge. Experienced heroin addicts can usually tell how pure or “hot” the heroin is by taste – using a little before taking a full shot.

Pill users rely on the milligram amount stamped on the pill. But that isn’t necessarily reliable in the Mexican drug cartel knockoffs. Questions abound.

  • How much heroin is in each pill?
  • How pure is the heroin in each pill?
  • What other painkillers might be in each pill?

Focus our resources

New Mexico ranks number two for per capita overdose deaths – down from years in the number one slot – according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The latest drug threat comes as Martinez and his staff are in early discussions on developing programs to combat prescription opiate abuse and aiding existing programs.

“We are not going to prosecute our way out of the drug problem,” Martinez said. “We have to have strong prevention, education and treatment programs in place.”

Martinez said, “As we find how we can help ongoing programs and start new ones to combat prescription drug abuse, we can then focus our resources on those individuals who move these types of drugs and have a disproportionate impact on the problem in our state.”

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