Editor’s note: First of a two-part series examining El Paso’s budding drug addiction problem and the stalemate in Juarez between police and the drug cartels.

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – El Paso is blessed with 302 days of sunshine, one of the lowest crime rates in America and billions of dollars in trade coming from Mexico every year.

That people elsewhere see this and other U.S. border cities as war zones befuddles residents like Britton Boyd.

Britton Boyd, special agent in charge of FBI El Paso Criminal Division. (Border Report photo)

“I’ve made El Paso my home. I believe there is a misconception of our community in the national dialogue. Ours is one of the safest, more welcoming communities I’ve been part of,” the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s criminal division here says. “It’s a great place to live and raise a family.”

However, Mexican drug cartels find the El Paso Sector’s 260 miles of international border and easy access to Interstate 10 irresistible. That reflects on drug smuggling events and a rising number of drug overdose deaths in El Paso County.

Border agents last year seized more than 39,000 pounds of illegal narcotics, mostly at ports of entry. The county’s medical examiner reported a large increase in drug overdose deaths. Many fatalities involved the dangerous synthetic drug fentanyl.

“El Paso is a unique place geographically. We are just across the border from Juarez, Mexico. We have multiple interstate highways. You can be anywhere within a day or two. It’s a valuable corridor for criminal networks to get their drugs to the United States,” said Greg Millard, acting special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Division.

The drugs – from pressed fentanyl pills to crystal methamphetamine to powdery heroin and cocaine – come into the country in a multitude of ways. “If you can imagine it, we’ve seen it,” Millard said. Drugs are hidden in the cargo of commercial trucks, on the door panels of private vehicles, pedestrians hide it in their clothing or tape it to their bodies. Sometimes the couriers are children from Juarez coming to school in El Paso. “If you can imagine it, the cartels will try it,” Millard said.

In addition to corrupting the locals, the cartels are also contributing to overdose deaths by splicing many illegal drugs with fentanyl.

“I wasn’t aware I was using fentanyl,” said Mario, a recovering addict in El Paso.  “What’s happening is they’re cutting everything up, all the drugs that are coming across from Mexico. They’re all being cut with fentanyl so that (you) like them stronger.”

Mario checked himself into a drug treatment center after some of his acquaintances OD’d on fentanyl last year.

El Paso in 2020 recorded 140 drug-overdose deaths, up from 114 in 2019 and 88 in 2018. The county medical examiner reported 22 people dying from fentanyl in 2020, compared to 6 in 2019 and only 1 in 2018. Nationwide, the U.S. recorded more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021 – with opioids like heroin and fentanyl accounting for 67 percent of that.

Drug overdose deaths in El Paso County. (Source: Medical Examiner’s latest available annual report)

Federal agents say fentanyl is cheaper to mass-produce than many other illegal drugs.

“A decade ago, a lot of the drugs such as opium (poppies) and marijuana were grown in Mexico on a seasonal basis. Once you had the technological advances from pharmaceuticals […] you now had a much more reliable supply of opioids through the synthetic markets – and that is in direct correlation to that increase” in opioid consumption in the U.S., the FBI’s Boyd said.

Now the cartels don’t have to wait to grow plants and extract the opioid. They operate synthetic drug labs 24-7 and make billions of dollars exporting fentanyl and other substances to the United States. They’re also jeopardizing communities. Fentanyl pills are deadly starting at 2-milligram doses, depending on your weight and health. At least 40 percent of the fentanyl DEA is seizing crossed the border in 2 mg doses, and some contained as much as 5 mg.

Who brings the drugs in?

DEA, the FBI and several other federal and local law enforcement agencies in El Paso use detective work, technology, and informants to track down people sending drugs to the U.S.

“There’s multiple cartels operating in Ciudad Juarez and then there is affiliates of the cartels and there’s freelancers, too,” Millard said.

Law-enforcement officials on both sides of the border and security analysts who track transnational criminal organizations have identified several groups operating in Juarez whose tentacles often reach across the border into El Paso.

They include La Linea (the old Juarez cartel), cells of the Sinaloa cartel such as Mexicles and Gente Nueva, several offshoots of Barrio Azteca (Aztecas Old Guard, Nuevos Aztecas, etc.), La Empresa and Artistas Asesinos. A new player, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is also believed to recently have arrived in the area.

These groups use coercion or exploit people’s greed to persuade truck drivers to let them install hidden compartments in their vehicles, habitual border crossers to carry drug “bricks” inside door panels or under car hoods, and men and women to tape drugs to their bodies. The cartels are also out to recruit American border agents.

A 24-year-old U.S. citizen male attempted to smuggle drugs that were strapped to his body on May 18, at the Paso Del Norte border crossing. (CBP)

“One of the specific threats we see in the El Paso community is the potential corruption of law enforcement officers in the border region taking bribes from criminal organizations to allow drugs to pass through,” Boyd said.

The Department of Justice has pursued several such cases in the past few years.

If the illegal shipment goes undetected and the carrier delivers the product to cartel operatives north of the border, the drugs are stored in “safe houses” until the groups compile amounts worth shipping to Dallas, Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles or many other U.S. cities where the value of illegal substances skyrockets.

Greg Millard, DEA acting special agent in charge in El Paso. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

The DEA and the FBI say the bulk of the illegal drugs trafficked through El Paso don’t stay in this community. That’s one of the reasons for the crime rates being low. El Paso County in 2020 reported 42 homicides compared to 1,600 in Juarez across the border.

But the drugs that remain in El Paso lead to addictions and kill. That’s why law enforcement and community organizations are partnering to reduce addiction rates.

“You can’t police your way out of an epidemic. We can’t just arrest people and think the drug use problem in America is going to go away,” Millard said. “It’s important getting the word out about youth being recruited into the drug trade. If we hit the parents and the teachers, if we can get to the school-aged kids, that’s very important.”

The other part of the equation is bringing bad actors to justice and seizing as much fentanyl at the border as possible.

“If we can stop it here and catch it here we’re saving a life maybe in Boston or maybe in Chicago,” Millard said.