EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Drug overdose deaths have hit an all-time high in the United States with more than 100,000 people dead in one year’s time.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is pointing to fentanyl as a major factor in the spike in deaths, saying the drug is being made in Mexico, turned into fake prescription pills by the Mexican cartels and then smuggled across the border.

KTSM 9 News anchor Christina Aguayo was taken inside the drug testing room at the DEA and was shown about 11,000 counterfeit prescription pills laced with fentanyl. The drugs equaled about a kilogram with a street value of more than $100,000, according to Acting Special Agent In Charge Greg Millard.

The fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills are made to look exactly like prescription pills. They are so potent a special agent must be fully protected before handling them. While in the drug-testing room, a special agent put on three layers of the glove, an air-purifying respirator and a special suit before handling the drugs inside a special hood.

Millard said that profit and greed are driving the Mexican drug cartels to push the fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl saying,

“It’s easy to produce it’s easy to get the chemicals. With the other drugs you have to grow a plant. With Heroin you have to grow a plant, Marijuana you have to grow a plant, Cocaine you have to grow a plant. But Fentanyl is produced in a laboratory, it’s produced clandestinely. It’s just chemicals mixed together.”

Acting Special Agent In Charge Greg Millard

That makes it extremely dangerous. Millard said the cartels are making fentanyl in powder and pill form,

“And the pill form is very scary because they’re made to look like legitimate pharmaceutical like Oxycontin, Oxycodone, Valium, and Xanax. So, they’re mimicking these so when people buy the pill on the street, they think they’re getting what maybe was a pill bought from a pharmacy prescribed by a doctor but sold on the black market. However, they’re not. They’re getting a pill made somewhere south of the border containing fentanyl.”

Acting Special Agent In Charge Greg Millard

Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine. In fact, Millard said, a very small amount can be deadly,

“Fentanyl is so powerful, only two milligrams could be potentially lethal. Two milligrams is like a few grains of salt. Picture a few grains of salt on the end of a pencil. That’s two milligrams. 40% of the pills have a potentially fatal dose”

Acting Special Agent In Charge Greg Millard

In 2021, the DEA El Paso Division seized nearly 300 kilos of fentanyl — marking a 600% increase from 2020 when it seized about 42 kilos. Millard said that the drugs are shipped throughout the country by way of El Paso, but recently they’re seeing more staying in the city.

And a new method being used by the cartels is recruiting young adults to traffic drugs into El Paso. Millard said the same method is being used to smuggle “people” across the border.

“We are [seeing] younger smugglers being recruited on social media platforms being recruited by the drug cartels to bring the drugs across. Often they don’t know what there are smuggling they are just paid to bring something to the United States,” he said.

But Millard has a warning about accepting cash to bring drugs across the border.

“I would tell them to be careful. If they are recruited on social media to be paid $50 or $100 or $200 to bring something into the United States. Stay away it’s not safe. It’s probably narcotics and you’re risking your freedom you will be arrested if you’re caught with it.”

Acting Special Agent In Charge Greg Millard

Millard says that the DEA is attacking the opioid crisis from every angle including using a response vehicle to help bust drug labs. Agents also showed KTSM 9 News those response vehicles.

“This is our new Clandestine Laboratory Response Vehicle. Traditionally, these were used to respond to clan labs for Meth where it was being produced in Texas, more recently these are used to respond to fentanyl.”

Everything the agents need to process a fentanyl lab is inside the truck; it also contains sophisticated equipment to test for the deadly drug.

In addition to taking down fentanyl drug labs, the DEA has launched Operation Engage – a program that takes a deeper dive into community outreach engaging everyone from local law enforcement to schools, faith-based organizations and even medical professionals – and they are encouraging parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of drugs.

“We’ve destigmatized drug use,” Millard said, “I’ve always said, a kid, a young kid and adult that maybe wouldn’t inject themselves with heroin, they wouldn’t do cocaine, but they’ll take a pill, and it’s really scary”

Millard said that other drugs like marijuana, cocaine and even meth are being laced with fentanyl, so the deadly drug is not just found in the fake pills being smuggled across the border. He also said that pills — prescribed by your doctor –- are safe. But if it’s not straight from the pharmacy, don’t take it. One pill, he said, can kill.

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