Fentanyl leaving deadly wake on U.S.-Mexico border communities

Border Report Tour

Overdose deaths involving the synthetic drug coming over from Mexico are up sixfold in El Paso County

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part interview with Kyle W. Williamson, the outgoing head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso, Texas.

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The drug cartels are the biggest public safety threat across the border in Juarez, driving up homicide and addiction rates, law enforcement officials there say. But here in El Paso, a new synthetic drug is quickly becoming Public Enemy No. 1.

Overdose deaths involving fentanyl have increased sixfold in the past three years in El Paso County. Fentanyl seizures also have spiked more than 500 percent from 2018 to 2020.

The drug is being pressed into pills using chemicals from China in clandestine labs in Mexico that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to satisfy an increasing – and increasingly dangerous – American demand, a U.S. law enforcement official says.

“El Paso remains a pass-through community but it’s increasingly becoming a stay community, especially with the appeal of counterfeit pills. They look like prescription pills like your normal oxycodone prescribed by your doctor and purchased in your pharmacy,” said Kyle W. Williamson, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso. “In reality, what you have is a pill manufactured in Mexico. We’re starting to see a lot more of those fentanyl pills staying here in El Paso.”

Fentanyl figured in only seven of the 88 toxicology-related deaths reported by the El Paso County of the Medical Examiner in its 2018 annual report. Forty-four of the 140 overdose deaths recorded by the ME by the end of 2020 involved the drug. Other man-made silent killers in the region include cocaine, linked to 96 fatalities in the past three years, methamphetamine (79 fatalities) and heroin (73).

Williamson attributed the local demand for fentanyl to various factors. The legal version of the drug was developed as a pain killer and anesthetic, primarily for cancer patients. It produces relaxation, euphoria, and drowsiness, according to a DEA fact sheet. But it also can lead to confusion, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention and pulmonary constriction.

Kyle W. Williamson

“We have a high demand for it,” the DEA official said. “They’re distributed through social media, they’re distributed on the streets, they’re in the schools, they’re everywhere.”

That’s alarming, given that two out of every five fentanyl pills seized in the El Paso area contain a lethal dosage. “The lethal dose of fentanyl is 2.2 milligrams, and the average amount of fentanyl in the pills we seize is 1.8 milligrams,” Williamson said.

Fentanyl is sold as a powder, wrapped in rolling paper, placed in eye droppers and nasal sprays. But, mostly, it’s pressed into pills.

When dealers mix fentanyl on other drugs like heroin, cocaine and meth, this further imperils users who may be accustomed to a certain amount of their choice drug.

“This is especially risky when people taking drugs don’t realize they might contain fentanyl as a cheap but dangerous additive. They might be taking stronger opioids than their bodies are used to and can be more likely to overdose,” the DEA fact sheet says.

In April, the DEA launched a nationwide initiative dubbed Operation Wave Breaker to counter the flow of fentanyl into the United States. El Paso was one of 11 regional offices targeted for enhanced interdiction.

“When I came here in 2018, we seized very little fentanyl,” Williamson said. “Fast-forward to today, our fentanyl seizures are up 524 percent and our methamphetamine seizures are up over 200 percent.”

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