DEA Battling ‘Unprecedented Levels’ of Fentanyl, Meth at Southern Border: Official

As overdose deaths in the United States soar to new highs, authorities are seizing “unprecedented levels” of methamphetamine and fentanyl at the country’s southern border, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official. Richard Sanchez, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA in MacAllen, Texas, told The Epoch Times that seizures in his area have increased over the past three years. Within his division, seizures of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine, have increased over 200 percent since 2019. Sanchez oversees three offices in the area. These offices are comprised of multiple drug enforcement groups and an intelligence group. His team is responsible for 21 counties, over 350 miles of coastline, and many miles of the southern border. In recent times, Sanchez’s team has been battling a disturbing new trend in drug making and trafficking: counterfeit prescription pills. Cartels are making pills marketed as legitimate prescription pills, and lacing them with fentanyl and methamphetamine, a low-cost way to make the drug more addictive. The problem has become so alarming that the DEA in September issued a public safety alert, its first in six years, about the issue. Meanwhile, in McAllen, local, state, and federal law enforcement officials have joined forces raise awareness about the “epidemic of fake pills” circulating throughout the city and beyond, Sanchez said. At the end of October, the DEA arrested 27 people, most of whom were Texans, in the Rio Grande Valley region for trafficking counterfeit pills containing methamphetamine and fentanyl. These “domestic-based couriers” were being used to transport drugs to local communities, according to Sanchez. He said the majority of seizures in McAllen are coming through at identified points of entry, which oversee the entry and exit of people and their possessions along the border. He explained that concealment methods continue to improve as drug traffickers do everything they can to ensure that their products have a chance to reach their final destination. With a high volume of trucks carrying heavy cargo coming in and out of McAllen, there is ample opportunity for concealment, according to Sanchez. “Considering the city’s proximity to the border and the amount of traffic to and from Mexico,” he said, “traffickers are able to take advantage of the volume of legitimate cargo that comes into the U.S. to conceal their narcotics [in other vehicles].” A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chemist checks confiscated pills containing fentanyl at the DEA Northeast Regional Laboratory in New York on Oct. 8, 2019. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images) Originally Made in China Sanchez noted that his day-to-day fight was not only against Mexican cartels, responsible for manufacturing and trafficking the drugs. The Chinese regime is also involved. “Without a doubt, precursor chemicals [for the manufacturing of drugs] are being sent to Mexico from China,” he said. Mexican transnational criminal organizations have relied on China as the primary source of fentanyl and precursor chemicals for quite some time. Derek Maltz, a former head of the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the DEA, said that in around 2013, there was a sharp rise in the number of overdose deaths from synthetic opioids, prompting the agency to investigate. Early probes determined that fentanyl was coming into the United States via mail and internet purchases from China. Shortly after, he said, SOD began identifying connections between Chinese transnational criminals and Mexican cartels in the distribution of fentanyl, as bulk quantities of fentanyl were being exported from China into Mexico. In 2019, the administration of then-President Donald Trump began putting pressure on Beijing to limit the flow of Chinese-produced fentanyl to Mexico and the United States. The move resulted in a significant decrease in pure fentanyl making its way across the ocean. But criminals then found ways to get around these restrictions. “There was a massive shift to precursor chemicals for the manufacturing of fentanyl being sent to Mexico—which ultimately resulted in an explosion of fentanyl in America,” Maltz said, adding that this remains the current trend. Winning Strategy “Need and greed” fuel the operations of criminal organizations, Sanchez said. As cartels strive to maximize their profits, “more dope is put on the street” and the drugs are being marketed to more users, particularly to younger crowds, he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about the money to them; it’s about the dollar.” Maltz agreed, saying, “It’s a win-win because their customer base is growing, and their profits are booming.” To maintain a steady cash flow without getting caught, it takes a bit of planning. “Criminal organizations along the southwest border of Texas are very strategic in how they handle their operations,” Sanchez said. He explained, “They will utilize certain smugglin

DEA Battling ‘Unprecedented Levels’ of Fentanyl, Meth at Southern Border: Official

As overdose deaths in the United States soar to new highs, authorities are seizing “unprecedented levels” of methamphetamine and fentanyl at the country’s southern border, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official.

Richard Sanchez, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA in MacAllen, Texas, told The Epoch Times that seizures in his area have increased over the past three years. Within his division, seizures of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine, have increased over 200 percent since 2019.

Sanchez oversees three offices in the area. These offices are comprised of multiple drug enforcement groups and an intelligence group. His team is responsible for 21 counties, over 350 miles of coastline, and many miles of the southern border.

In recent times, Sanchez’s team has been battling a disturbing new trend in drug making and trafficking: counterfeit prescription pills. Cartels are making pills marketed as legitimate prescription pills, and lacing them with fentanyl and methamphetamine, a low-cost way to make the drug more addictive.

The problem has become so alarming that the DEA in September issued a public safety alert, its first in six years, about the issue. Meanwhile, in McAllen, local, state, and federal law enforcement officials have joined forces raise awareness about the “epidemic of fake pills” circulating throughout the city and beyond, Sanchez said.

At the end of October, the DEA arrested 27 people, most of whom were Texans, in the Rio Grande Valley region for trafficking counterfeit pills containing methamphetamine and fentanyl. These “domestic-based couriers” were being used to transport drugs to local communities, according to Sanchez.

He said the majority of seizures in McAllen are coming through at identified points of entry, which oversee the entry and exit of people and their possessions along the border. He explained that concealment methods continue to improve as drug traffickers do everything they can to ensure that their products have a chance to reach their final destination.

With a high volume of trucks carrying heavy cargo coming in and out of McAllen, there is ample opportunity for concealment, according to Sanchez.

“Considering the city’s proximity to the border and the amount of traffic to and from Mexico,” he said, “traffickers are able to take advantage of the volume of legitimate cargo that comes into the U.S. to conceal their narcotics [in other vehicles].”

Epoch Times Photo A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chemist checks confiscated pills containing fentanyl at the DEA Northeast Regional Laboratory in New York on Oct. 8, 2019. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)

Originally Made in China

Sanchez noted that his day-to-day fight was not only against Mexican cartels, responsible for manufacturing and trafficking the drugs. The Chinese regime is also involved.

“Without a doubt, precursor chemicals [for the manufacturing of drugs] are being sent to Mexico from China,” he said.

Mexican transnational criminal organizations have relied on China as the primary source of fentanyl and precursor chemicals for quite some time.

Derek Maltz, a former head of the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the DEA, said that in around 2013, there was a sharp rise in the number of overdose deaths from synthetic opioids, prompting the agency to investigate.

Early probes determined that fentanyl was coming into the United States via mail and internet purchases from China. Shortly after, he said, SOD began identifying connections between Chinese transnational criminals and Mexican cartels in the distribution of fentanyl, as bulk quantities of fentanyl were being exported from China into Mexico.

In 2019, the administration of then-President Donald Trump began putting pressure on Beijing to limit the flow of Chinese-produced fentanyl to Mexico and the United States. The move resulted in a significant decrease in pure fentanyl making its way across the ocean.

But criminals then found ways to get around these restrictions.

“There was a massive shift to precursor chemicals for the manufacturing of fentanyl being sent to Mexico—which ultimately resulted in an explosion of fentanyl in America,” Maltz said, adding that this remains the current trend.

Winning Strategy

“Need and greed” fuel the operations of criminal organizations, Sanchez said.

As cartels strive to maximize their profits, “more dope is put on the street” and the drugs are being marketed to more users, particularly to younger crowds, he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about the money to them; it’s about the dollar.”

Maltz agreed, saying, “It’s a win-win because their customer base is growing, and their profits are booming.”

To maintain a steady cash flow without getting caught, it takes a bit of planning. “Criminal organizations along the southwest border of Texas are very strategic in how they handle their operations,” Sanchez said.

He explained, “They will utilize certain smuggling routes for migrants, which causes the law enforcement community to shift their enforcement operations to such an area to mitigate—and once these resources have moved, they’ll exploit the response by law enforcement and use another route for trafficking narcotics.”

Apart from the success of some drug traffickers reaching the interior of the United States, Maltz said that Chinese transnational criminals are also “smart” about what they are doing.

“They are using Mexican cartels as proxies to distribute poisonous substances in America. As part of the Chinese regime’s plan for “unrestricted warfare,” he said, referring to a Chinese military strategy to use unconventional forms of warfare to defeat an enemy without resorting to kinetic conflict. “They are deliberately destabilizing America under the guise of drug addiction.”

He added, “The regime is sitting back as Mexican cartels distribute a poison that’s killing America’s future generation at record levels.”

Epoch Times Photo Photographs of fentanyl pills and pill press machines seized by authorities are displayed during a news conference outside the Roybal Federal Building on Feb. 24, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Patrick T. Fallon//AFP via Getty Images)

Deadly Mixtures

In southern Texas, methamphetamine is being mixed with fentanyl at alarming levels, Sanchez said, a trend being repeated across the entire country. The combination is deadlier than anything the DEA officer has ever seen.

“It only takes one milligram—the size of a grain of salt—to kill a first-time user,” he said of fentanyl.

“60 kilograms [approximately 132 pounds] is enough fentanyl to kill the whole population of the United States,” he said, adding that he considers it crucial to tell others about its potency and its deadly mixture with other drugs.

In the 2021 fiscal year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized more than 11,000 pounds of fentanyl, more than double the previous year. Methamphetamine seizures have also surged, with the CBP impounding more than 190,000 pounds during the 2021 fiscal year, a more than two-fold increase from four years ago.

The DEA, with its law enforcement counterparts, as of late September, had seized over 9.5 million counterfeit pills, which is more than the previous two years combined. Further, there has been a marked increase in the number of fake pills seized containing fentanyl, according to the agency, pointing to a 430 percent increase since 2019. Lab testing has also determined that 40 percent of pills seized contain a potentially lethal dose of at least two milligrams.

“Considering that 9.5 million pills have been seized,” Maltz said, “DEA has already saved over three million lives this year.” Had two out of five pills made it into the hands of unsuspecting victims, these people would have died, he noted.

With drug overdose deaths in the United States climbing to a record 93,000 in 2020, the DEA has recognized fentanyl as a “primary driver” in this trend.

Counterfeit pills are often made to look identical to prescription opioids such as oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and alprazolam (Xanax); or stimulants like amphetamines (Adderall).

Maltz said many of these pills are being produced in labs in Mexico. Pill presses and dyes are purchased from the internet to create mirror images of prescription medications.

Prescription Drug Misuse

Prescription painkillers—opioids, in particular—also create a challenge. Over 10 million Americans have misused opioids at least once over a 12-month period, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Criminal organizations associated with the trafficking of drugs understand this fact, Sanchez said.

“As a result, they’ve realized that people are not afraid to take prescription medication,” the DEA agent said. “It’s less intrusive than someone sticking a needle in their arm or someone smoking a crack pipe.” Taking a pill—whether by prescription or over-the-counter—is something the majority of the population has been accustomed to doing, since an early age, he added.

A lack of fear and precaution can lead to death in some circumstances.

Sanchez gave a hypothetical example. “A first-year college student could find himself up late cramming for an exam when his roommate offers an Adderall given to him by a friend to help him stay focused,” he said. Not knowing if this pill is counterfeit, a perceived innocent gesture could quickly turn deadly, he added.

Business Rolls On

In October, the DEA made a bust on a meth conversion lab in Ellenwood, Georgia, and arrested three men from Mexico who were in the country illegally.

Maltz said, “in recent years, there has been much talk about a border crisis and some people say it doesn’t matter when illegals come into the country.” According to the DEA, these men were affiliated with a drug cartel. Maltz said cartels are taking advantage of a porous border and “they’re sending the key confidants and important network operators” into the United States to grow their business.

The cartels, according to Maltz, are doing the same thing nearly any corporate company would if there was an area of the country where the company’s products would sell. “Wouldn’t you put some of your good people in such a city and start pushing your products?” he said.. “If you run a business, you have to have people you can trust to run the business; it’s the same thing with the cartels.”

J.M. Phelps

J.M. Phelps

Freelance reporter

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J.M. Phelps is a writer and researcher of both Islamist and Chinese threats.