EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A wave of the illegal synthetic drug fentanyl is coming to the border on its way to the American heartland.

But some of it is staying in border communities like El Paso, where law enforcement officials say gangs are using social media platforms to market the illicit and potentially deadly pills to potential consumers of all ages.

“The majority of those pills are being made to look like actual pharmaceutically-produced medications, but they are counterfeits, laced with fentanyl. These pills are being sold throughout the United States by transnational cartels through various methods, including social media,” said Carlos Briano, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Division.

U.S. health experts blame the record 93,000 drug overdose deaths during 2020 largely on an increase in the consumption of synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, whose manufacture is cheap and potency 50 to 100 times higher than that of morphine.

“The drug overdose crisis in the U.S. is a clear and present public health, public safety and national security threat, and synthetic opioids like illicitly manufactured fentanyl continue to remain the primary driver of increases in drug overdose deaths,” Briano said.

The DEA reports that 159 kilograms of the opioid have been seized by law-enforcement agencies in the El Paso Division so far this fiscal year. That is almost four times what they seized in FY 2020 and three times as much during pre-coronavirus pandemic 2019. All 23 DEA divisions are reporting increases in seizures this year, Briano said.

Most of the pills are coming from Mexico, where law-enforcement officials fear they, too, will be dealing with consumption, addiction, and overdose deaths of the deadly synthetic opioid in a few years.

El Paso is one of 11 DEA divisions nationwide taking part in Operation Wavebreaker, which aims to disrupt the trafficking of fentanyl. The agency says the Sinaloa cartel, whose cells primarily operate in Juarez’s Lower Valley, is one of the main transnational criminal organizations exploiting America’s opioid epidemic.

“Please talk to your loved ones about these latest stats. Have open, honest conversations. Seek helpful resources you can find at www.dea.gov or call 1-800-662-HELP for treatment referrals,” Briano said.

‘It is a new drug for us’

“It is a new drug for us, but it is following the same trends as crystal meth,” said Ricardo Realivazquez, Chihuahua state police Chief in Juarez. “Crystal started showing up at the border in small amounts, then for (export), then we started seeing distribution and street sales. Today we seize crystal meth in small doses, which means the consumers are here.”

The police chief said the fentanyl is coming to Juarez from labs in the interior of Mexico. No local labs have been discovered and no precursor chemicals like benzylfentanyl, anilinopiperidine-4 or norfentanyl have been found.

State police fentanyl seizures in Juarez have come in “large amounts” so far, though the police chief did not immediately provide statistics. “That means it is still brought here to be crossed into the United States, but we are not exempt from seeing single-dose amounts on the streets in a short time,” he said.

Juarez has long been a springboard for drugs into the United States and, as of the last few years, also a budding consumer market for meth, marijuana, heroin and cocaine. The drug cartels often pay their gang members in drugs, which are in turn sold on the streets.

Mexican police say these sales are fueling increased violence and homicides, as the gangs fight for territory. The sales are getting sophisticated as well – it’s not just people selling out of street corners anymore.

“It is distributed through dealers and pushers in what we call tienditas (little stores), where people go buy (drugs),” Realivazquez said. “Recently, we find that the dealers carry less drugs with them. It is a strategy of organized criminal gangs to minimize their losses and be able to hire a lawyer and get their dealer out of jail.”

The in-house sales are driving addiction rates up in Juarez, the police chief said. Nonprofits in that city estimate more than 100,000 residents are addicted to or consume drugs regularly. Now the concern is to prevent the consumption of fentanyl pills.

“We need to train our police officers because it is a drug that generates addiction. We learned how to deal with crystal and cocaine (addictions), but not fentanyl,” Realivazquez said.