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

By J.M. Phelps
J.M. Phelps
J.M. Phelps
Freelance reporter
J.M. Phelps is a writer and researcher of both Islamist and Chinese threats.
November 15, 2021 Updated: November 16, 2021

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 McAllen, 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 more than 200 percent since 2019.

Sanchez oversees three offices in the area. These offices comprise multiple drug enforcement groups and an intelligence group. His team is responsible for 21 counties, more than 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 to boost 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 that contained 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 across the border at identified points of entry, which oversee the entry and exit of people and their possessions. He said drug traffickers’ concealment methods continue to improve.

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

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

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 isn’t only against Mexican cartels that are 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 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 into Mexico from China.

In 2019, the Trump administration 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.

However, criminals have found ways to evade 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 agrees, saying, “It’s a win-win because their customer base is growing, and their profits are booming.”

Maintaining a steady cash flow without getting caught takes a bit of planning.

“Criminal organizations along the southwest border of Texas are very strategic in how they handle their operations,” Sanchez said.

“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.

“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 in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2021. (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.

“Sixty 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 alert people about its potency and its deadly mixture with other drugs.

In fiscal year 2021, 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 fiscal 2021, a more than two-fold increase from four years ago.

The DEA, in concert with other law enforcement agencies, as of late September, had seized more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills, more than the previous two years combined. There has also 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, DEA has already saved over three million lives this year,” Maltz said. 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 look-alikes to prescription medications.

Prescription Drug Misuse

Prescription painkillers—opioids, in particular—also create a challenge. More than 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 that, 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 said.

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 said.

Business Rolls On

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

“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,” Maltz said.

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 expand their business.

The cartels, Maltz says, 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
Freelance reporter
J.M. Phelps is a writer and researcher of both Islamist and Chinese threats.