As the battle over what President Donald Trump has termed a crisis at our southern border continues, there is at least one constant: Illicit fentanyl smuggled from Mexico by the Sinaloa cartel into the Southwest is a profitable new business for the drug gang that has made the synthetic opioid responsible for most fatal overdoses in the U.S.
While Chinese shipments were long blamed for illegal fentanyl entering the U.S., the Mexican Army in late 2017 discovered a rustic fentanyl lab in a remote part of Sinaloa state and seized precursors, finished fentanyl and production equipment.
Data collected by Customs and Border Protection show sky blue pills nicknamed “Mexican oxy” that sell for $9 to $30 each are now flooding into this country, largely through ports of entry around Nogales, Arizona, and San Diego, California.
Most fentanyl smuggled from Mexico is about 10 percent pure and enters hidden in vehicles at official border crossings. A decreasing number of smaller shipments with purity of up to 90 percent still enter the U.S. in packages sent from China.
At the Nogales crossing last month, U.S. officials announced their biggest fentanyl bust ever. Nearly 254 pounds was found in a truckload of cucumbers, enough to potentially kill millions. Most of the 254 pounds of seized fentanyl — valued at $3.5 million — was in powder form, but over two pounds was made up of pills.
Tucson Police Lt. Christian Wildblood told The Associated Press the fentanyl tablets are, in most cases, manufactured in primitive conditions with pill presses purchased online. They are crudely made and stamped with “M” on one side and “30” on the other to make them look like legitimate oxycodone.
Far more crucial is the fact that the amount of fentanyl in the counterfeit pills varies from 0.03 to 1.99 milligrams per tablet, amounts the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration termed as ranging from “almost none to a lethal dose.”
“There is no quality control,” Wildblood said.
Although an estimated 85 percent of the fentanyl from Mexico is seized at San Diego area border crossings, the DEA’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment said seizures have surged at Arizona’s border and elsewhere around the state.
DEA statistics show Arizona fentanyl seizures rose to 445 pounds, including 379,557 pills, in the fiscal year that ended last October, up from 172 pounds, including 54,983 pills, during the previous 12 months.
At the same time, CDC figures for Arizona show the statewide deaths involving synthetic opioids — largely from fentanyl — rose from 72 in 2015 to 123 in 2016 to 267 in 2017.
Doug Coleman, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrating special agent in charge of Arizona, said the Sinaloa cartel’s ability to ramp up its own production of fentanyl and label it oxycodone shows the group’s business acumen.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fentanyl is now the drug involved in the most fatal overdoses in the U.S., with fatalities from synthetic opioids including fentanyl jumping more than 45 percent from 2016 to 2017, when they accounted for some 28,000 of about 70,000 overdose deaths of all kinds.
Fentanyl was also involved more than any other drug in the majority of overdose deaths in 2016, the year the pop artist Prince died after taking fake Vicodin laced with fentanyl. Heroin was responsible for the most drug overdose deaths each of the four years before that
Trump is working to amassing vast sums of money to build a wall his own government agencies say would have limited value, particularly in slowing or stopping the flow of illegal drugs coming into this country from Mexico. There is equipment available that would help our border agents better interdict drugs being smuggled into the country at the ports of entry.
And there is support in Congress to add that equipment at our ports of entry. Drugs coming into this country at official border crossings are a real crisis. Trump would serve the nation better by taking advantage of congressional support to fight the real crisis rather than focusing on a far less productive campaign promise.