Fentanyl deaths from ‘Mexican oxy’ pills hit Arizona hard – DEA says fentanyl seizures have surged at Arizona border

File: This Jan. 31, 2019 file photo shows a display of fentanyl and meth that was seized by Customs and Border Protection officers over the weekend at the Nogales Port of Entry at a press conference in Nogales, Ariz. Law enforcement officers in the U.S. Southwest say they have also seen fentanyl-laced pills mimicking Vicodin pain medicine and Xanax anti-anxiety tablets, as well as fentanyl powder to mix with heroin for an extra kick. Officers say that because the tablets are designed to look like prescription medicine, consumers often don't know they are swallowing fentanyl. And because they are made without any kind of quality control, taking them is like Russian roulette because the amount of fentanyl in each can vary widely. (Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP, File)

By ANITA SNOW,  Associated Press   TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) 02/14 — Aaron Francisco Chavez swallowed at least one of the sky blue pills at a Halloween party before falling asleep forever. He became yet another victim killed by a flood of illicit fentanyl smuggled from Mexico into the Southwest — a profitable new business for drug gangs that has pushed the synthetic opioid to the top spot for fatal U.S. overdoses.

Three others at the party in Tucson also took the pills nicknamed “Mexican oxy” and police flagged down by partygoers saved them by administering naloxone overdose reversal medication. But the treatment came too late for Chavez, who died at age 19.

The four thought they were taking oxycodone, a much less powerful opioid, investigators believe. The death of Chavez and many others, officials said, illustrate how Arizona and other southwestern states bordering Mexico have become a hot spot in the nation’s fentanyl crisis. Fentanyl deaths tripled in Arizona alone from 2015 through 2017.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen in 30 years, this toll that it’s taken on families,” said Doug Coleman, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge of Arizona. “The crack (cocaine) crisis was not as bad.”

Doug Coleman, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge of Arizona, talks about the fentanyl epidemic during an interview at DEA headquarters Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

 

With plenty of pills and powder sold locally out of the arriving fentanyl shipments that are also distributed around the U.S., the drug that has surpassed heroin for overdose deaths has touched all Arizona demographic groups. Chavez’ family says he was working at a restaurant as a prep cook with dreams of becoming a chef and trying to turn his life around after serving prison time for a robbery conviction.

Also killed in the state over the last year by the pills that go for $9 to $30 each were a 17-year-old star high school baseball pitcher from a Phoenix suburb and a pair of 19-year-old best friends and prominent former high school athletes from the mountain town of Prescott Valley. The parents of one, Gunner Bundrick, said their son’s death left “a hole in our hearts.”

Popping the pills at parties “is a lot more widespread than we know,” said Yavapai County Sheriff’s Lt. Nate Auvenshine. “There’s less stigma to taking a pill than putting a needle in your arm, but one of these pills can have enough fentanyl for three people.”

Stamped with “M”on one side and “30” on the other to make them look like legitimate oxycodone, the pills started showing up in Arizona in recent years as the Sinaloa cartel’s newest drug product, said Tucson Police Lt. Christian Wildblood.

This photo provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Phoenix Division shows some of the 30,000 fentanyl pills the agency seized in one of its bigger busts, in Tempe, Ariz., in August, 2017. The picture shows just one of four plastic containers that were stuffed with the tablets. The Southwest, and Arizona in particular, has become Ground Zero in the nation’s fentanyl crisis with plenty of pills and powder staying behind after the drug is repackaged and sent on to New York and other U.S. destinations. Stamped with “M” and “30” like the pain medication oxycodone, the fentanyl-laced pills showed up in recent years as the Sinaloa cartel’s newest product. (Drug Enforcement Administration via AP)

 

The fentanyl that killed Chavez was among 1,000 pills sneaked across the border crossing last year in Nogales, Arizona by a woman who was paid $200 to tote them and gave two to Chavez at the party, according to court documents. It’s unknown if he took one or both.

Jocelyn Sanchez, 21, of Tucson, Ariz., is seen in this November, 2018 booking photo provided by the Pima County Sheriff’s Office. Sanchez has been charged with trafficking and transporting the sky blue fentanyl pills designed to look like oxycodone that killed Aaron Francisco Chavez, 19, and seriously sickened three others at a Halloween party last year. Chavez swallowed the pills and went to sleep forever amid a flood of illicit fentanyl flowing from Mexico into the Southwest that has pushed the synthetic opioid into the top spot for fatal overdoses in the U.S. (Pima County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

 

At the same crossing last month, U.S. officials announced their biggest fentanyl bust ever — nearly 254 pounds (115 kilograms) seized from a truckload of cucumbers, enough to potentially kill millions. Valued at $3.5 million, most was in powder form and over 2 pounds (1 kilogram) was made up of pills.

The tablets in most cases are manufactured in primitive conditions with pill presses purchased online and the amount of fentanyl in each pill can vary widely, Wildblood said.

“There is no quality control,” he said.

While Chinese shipments were long blamed for illegal fentanyl entering the U.S., Mexico’s Army in November 2017 discovered a rustic fentanyl lab in a remote part of Sinaloa state and seized precursors, finished fentanyl and production equipment — suggesting some of it is now being synthesized across the U.S. border.

Most fentanyl smuggled from Mexico is about 10 percent pure and enters hidden in vehicles at official border crossings around Nogales and San Diego, Customs and Border Protection data show. A decreasing number of smaller shipments with purity of up to 90 percent still enter the U.S. in packages sent from China.

Graphic shows drug seizures and overdose deaths.

 

Although 85 percent of the fentanyl from Mexico is seized at San Diego area border crossings, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’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 (202 kilograms), including 379,557 pills, in the fiscal year ending in October 2018, up from 172 pounds (78 kilograms), including 54,984 pills, during the previous 12-month period.

The Sinaloa cartel’s ability to ramp up its own production of fentanyl and label it oxycodone shows the group’s business acumen and why it remains among the world’s top criminal organizations, despite the conviction in New York this week of cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, Coleman said.

“If they see a market for their stuff, they’ll make it and bring it up,” he said.

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.

CDC figures for Arizona show the statewide deaths involving synthetic opioids excluding methadone, largely from fentanyl, rose from 72 in 2015 to 123 in 2016 and then skyrocketed to 267 in 2017.

In the first federal conviction of its kind in Arizona that linked a death to distribution of any drug, a woman from a Phoenix suburb last year got 12 years in prison for selling fentanyl tablets that killed a 38-year-old Arizona man.

And in Tucson, Chavez’ relatives wonder why the woman accused of smuggling the pills across the border allegedly decided to hand them out at the party, saying they were Percocet, which contains oxycodone and acetaminophen, and “something else,” according to court documents.

The woman, Jocelyn Sanchez, denied describing them that way and was charged with transporting and transferring narcotics. Her lawyer, Joel Chorny, declined to discuss the case.

Seanna Leilani Chavez, the sister of Aaron Francisco Chavez, pauses as she looks at family photos as she stands next to a shrine for Aaron, including images of Aaron on the wall, at the family home Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. Aaron Chavez died of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 19. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

 

Nicknamed “Sonny Boy, Chavez was the third of 10 children born to Leslie Chavez, who was brought to the U.S. as an infant and deported back to Mexico last year, two months before he died. In a phone interview, she said Mexican officials arranged to have her son’s body brought across the border so she could say goodbye.

She said she had “heard about how these pills were killing people” but never thought it would happen to one of her children.

Chavez had a 2-year-old daughter and despite his robbery conviction “was trying to get his life together, he was trying to be good” for the toddler, said his sister, Seanna Leilani Chavez.

The dealers, she said, are only interested in profits.

“They will sell you poison, take your money, and not think twice about how they could possibly be killing someone’s son, father, brother or grandson,” she said.

 

https://apnews.com/d2296529ea94472d9f0d010f7bb99a2d

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Posted in: Border Control, Border Patrol, Crime & Criminals, DEA, Deaths, Drugs/Drug Trafficking, Gangs, Homicide, Opioids, Organized Crime, Public Safety, Smuggling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

seventeen + eleven =

Terms of Use for Posting Comments

Terms of Use

This site (the “Site”) is operated and maintained by Law Enforcement Education Foundation, Corporation (“Company”). Throughout the Site, the terms “we”, “us” and “our” refer to Company.  The words “user,” “you” and “your” as used herein refer to you.

Please read these terms and conditions of use (“Terms of Use”) carefully before contributing content. If you do not agree to these Terms of Use, please do not contribute content. Your use of the Site is subject to the Terms and Conditions found here .

By contributing content to the Site, you represent and warrant that you are at least eighteen (18) years old and that you have read and understand these Terms of Use and any amendments thereto and agree to be bound by them. If you are not at least eighteen (18) years old or you do not agree and accept these Terms of Use, you are prohibited from contributing content.

From time to time, we may permit users to submit content to the Site.  You hereby acknowledge and agree that by submitting remarks, comments, suggestions, ideas, graphics, feedback, edits, concepts, comments, photographs, illustrations and other materials (other than personal information and/or registration information) through the Site (individually and collectively, “Submissions”), you (i) grant us a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, transferable, irrevocable and fully sub-licensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, distribute, publish, create derivative works from and publicly display and perform such Submissions throughout the world in any media, now known or hereafter created, without attribution to you; (ii) grant us the right to pursue at law any person or entity that violates your and/or our rights in your Submissions; and (iii) forever waive any and all of your rights, including but not limited to moral rights, if any, in and to your Submissions, including, without limitation, any all rights or requirements of attribution or identification of you as the author of the Submission or any derivative thereof.  We reserve the right to remove any of your Submissions from the Site, in whole or in part, without notice to you, for any reason or no reason.

Submissions are made voluntarily. Any submissions which include personally identifiable information are subject to our Privacy Policy found here .  You may not upload or otherwise publish content on the Site that (i) is confidential to you or any third party; (ii) is untrue, inaccurate, false or other than an original work of your authorship; (iii) that relates to or impersonates any other person; (iv) violates the copyright, trademark, patent or other intellectual property rights of any person or entity; (v) contains any content, personally identifiable information or other information, or materials of any kind that relate or refer to any other person or entity other than the provider of the products, goods or services to which the Submission relates; or (vi) violates any law, or in any manner infringes or interferes with the rights of others, including but not limited to the use of names, information, or materials that (A) libel, defame, or invade the privacy of any third party, (B) are obscene or pornographic, (C) are harmful, threatening, offensive, abusive, harassing, vulgar, false or inaccurate, racially, sexually, ethnically or are otherwise objectionable or otherwise contrary to the laws of any place where such Submissions may be accessed; (D) constitute personal attacks on other individuals; (E) promote criminal, immoral or illegal activity; (F) promote or advertise any person, product or service or solicit funds; or (G) are deemed confidential by any contract or policy.

You are solely responsible for any Submissions you make and their accuracy. We take no responsibility and assume no liability for any Submissions posted by you or any third party.

Unless approved by us in writing in advance, you agree not to: (i) provide or create a link to the Site; or (ii) create any frames at any other sites pertaining to any of the content located on the Site.

We reserve the right, in our discretion, to update, change or replace any part of these Terms of Use for Posting Comments by posting updates and/or changes to our Site.  It is your responsibility to check this page periodically for changes.  Your continued use of, and/or access to the Site, following the posting of any changes to these Terms of Use for Posting Comments, constitutes your acceptance of those changes.