One fentanyl pill can kill a person.
That’s the message DEA officials are stressing as fentanyl seizures and overdose deaths continue to rise in El Paso.
The increase in seizures of fentanyl and other drugs, along with overdose deaths, is related to Mexican drug cartels using social media to target Americans seeking to buy prescription pills online, said Greg Millard, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration El Paso Division acting special agent in charge.
Americans are buying what they believe are prescription pills such as Adderall, Xanax, Oxycodone and other drugs, but in reality, the cartels are selling them fake pills laced with fentanyl, Millard said.
“The cartels are using fentanyl, which is easier to produce and cheaper to get, to make the other drugs and to stretch the other drugs,” Millard said. “They are adding fentanyl to increase their profits.”
The pills are being made with fentanyl and other chemicals the cartels get from China, Millard said.
The DEA El Paso Division has seen a large increase in fentanyl seizures in El Paso, with a 456% rise in the 2021 fiscal year, which ran from October 2020 to September 2021, compared with the previous fiscal year.
As the number of seizures of fentanyl and other illegal drugs increased in El Paso, so did the number of overdose deaths, officials said.
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The DEA launched a nationwide public awareness campaign, “One Pill Can Kill,” to help inform the public of the dangers of buying prescription pills online.
“The DEA has seized an unprecedented amount of fentanyl, more than 15,000 pounds (across the country) this year alone,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said during a news conference. “That fentanyl is directly linked to the staggering amount of overdose deaths that we are seeing in our country. Over the past year, 64,000 overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids, predominantly fentanyl. This is an existential threat to our communities, bringing harm and violence and shattering families.”
Drug cartels are using social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube, to reach a greater number of Americans.
“What is equally troubling is that the cartels have harnessed the perfect drug delivery tool, social media,” Milgram said. “Social media applications that are available on every single smartphone in the United States — 85% of all Americans have a smartphone. That is about 280 million smartphones. When you open those apps, when you open Snapchat, when you open Facebook, when you open Instagram, when you open TikTok, when you open YouTube, the drug traffickers and the criminal networks are there waiting for you.”
She continued: “The Mexican drug cartels don’t care that they are killing a staggering number of Americans every day. They will just target and find new customers so that they can profit. Criminal drug traffickers have found a new tool to pump poison into our community. They have turned our smartphones into a one-click stop to market, to sell and to deliver deadly drugs.”
The counterfeit pills have markings like those on authentic prescription pills to make them look legitimate, officials said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to drug cartels using more border crossers to smuggle illegal drugs into the U.S., Millard said.
“What we saw during COVID was that the bridges were shut down except to U.S. citizens and essential workers,” Millard said. “So, the cartels were using the social media to recruit U.S. citizens, commonly teenagers, day workers, people that had the status to come and go to, and they were bringing these pills.”
The fight to eliminate deadly, fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills must be a community effort, Millard said.
“The DEA alone can’t solve this problem,” Millard said. “We can’t police our way out of an epidemic. We need the community’s help. We really need the community to get the word out about how one pill can kill, how dangerous these counterfeit prescription pills are, but also the other drugs, too, because we’re finding fentanyl mixed in cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.”
In El Paso, DEA agents seized 178 kilograms, or around 392 pounds, of fentanyl during the 2021 fiscal year, compared with 32 kilograms, or around 71 pounds, in the 2020 fiscal year.
The seizures in 2020 were a large increase from the 13 kilograms, or around 29 pounds, seized in 2019.
So far in the 2022 fiscal year, agents already have seized 24 kilograms, or nearly 53 pounds, from the beginning of the fiscal year, Oct. 1, to Dec. 16.
Fentanyl was attributed to 48 overdose deaths in 2020, with 22 only involving fentanyl and 26 involving fentanyl and other drugs combined, according to the El Paso County Medical Examiner Office’s 2020 annual report.
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In 2019, there were 18 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in El Paso, compared with seven in 2018, the report states.
The victims of fentanyl overdoses span all age groups and social statuses, officials said.
“It’s all ages, from teenagers to adults,” Millard said. “With fentanyl, there doesn’t appear to be any socioeconomic boundaries, any age boundaries, race boundaries. It just seems these prescription pills have shown up in overdose deaths in a wide variety of people.”
The DEA also has seen large increases in seizures of other illegal drugs, including methamphetamine and cocaine.
Between 2020 to 2021, meth seizures increased 487%, from 427 kilograms, or around 941 pounds, in the 2020 fiscal year to 2,510 kilograms, or around 5,534 pounds, in fiscal year 2021.
Cocaine seizures increased from 351 kilograms, or around 774 pounds, in 2020 to 816 kilograms, or around 1,799 pounds, in 2021, while heroin decreased from 72 kilograms, or about 159 pounds, in 2020 to 64 kilograms, or 141 pounds, in 2021.
Aaron Martinez may be reached at 915-546-6249; firstname.lastname@example.org; @AMartinezEPT on Twitter.
One fentanyl pill can kill a person.