The pre-war co-op on New York’s Upper West Side, across the street from Central Park, was the fictional home “Seinfeld” character Elaine Benes.
In real life it’s where an accused Sinaloa drug kingpin stashed fentanyl to be weighed, bagged and labeled for sale on New York streets under the names “UBER,” “Panda,” and “Wild Card.”
When narcotics agents raided Apartment 6D in August, they found 1,100 glassine envelopes of the deadly synthetic heroin, plus everything else needed for a distribution mill: bags of bulk fentanyl, stamps, ledgers, gloves, masks, rubber bands, a heat sealing device and a gun stuffed between couch cushions.
The iconic building was the final stop on just one artery of an illicit pipeline stretching all the way back to China.
Flowing in one direction, this fentanyl pipeline runs through Mexican cartel strongholds and heads north on well-established drug trafficking routes. It funnels 80 percent of the drug through the San Diego border before dispersing throughout the U.S.
The pipeline flows in another direction, as well, direct from Chinese laboratories to U.S. customers through the mail, bringing small, hard-to-detect packages of extremely pure fentanyl to suburban doorsteps.
Both channels are feeding a deadly epidemic, moving a drug so potent that the equivalent of a few grains of table salt can be fatal.
In 2016, fentanyl-type drugs were responsible for killing nearly 20,000 people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sealing the fentanyl pipeline, however, has proven to be thus far an insurmountable challenge. The effort involves navigating delicate political relations with China and Mexico, addressing weaknesses at U.S. borders and within international mail systems that continue to allow narcotics to slip through unnoticed, battling nimble and powerful drug traffickers, and trying to keep up with enterprising chemists who constantly skirt drug controls with new formulations.
Piece of cake
Fentanyl was first developed in 1960 as a powerful painkiller and surgery anesthetic without the side effect of nausea. It is 100 times more potent than morphine and up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
It is prescribed in controlled settings for the most serious conditions, such as to treat cancer pain, and usually dispensed in patches or lollipops.
Then drug traffickers realized its potential.
The first major wave of illicit fentanyl-laced heroin hit the U.S. around 2005 and 2006. Now, it has completely invaded the illegal drug market.
Mexican drug cartels often take bulk pure fentanyl from China and then cut it with any number of substances, from heroin to cocaine to methamphetamine to cheap fillers such as sugar and acetominophen.
The end result is packaged wholesale into powdered bricks that are extremely diluted, 6 to 7 percent typically, and smuggled across the border.
The street dealers then call it whatever they want, leaving most customers completely unaware that the drug they just bought is actually fentanyl.
“The guy who is addicted to heroin has no idea what he’s getting, he just knows he’s getting that same feeling,” said Dean Kirby, a senior forensic chemist at the DEA lab in San Diego.
Small amounts of pure fentanyl are also commonly mixed with the same kinds of fillers and pressed into pills. They are then falsely marketed as pharmaceuticals such as oxycodone or Xanax, seizing upon America’s heavy demand for prescription painkillers.
Poorly blended batches can create fentanyl hotspots, proving fatal for unsuspecting users. While some traffickers brag about using top-of-the-line mixers — sometimes the same machinery used by pharmaceutical companies — others use rudimentary equipment, authorities say.
Why take the risk of killing off customers? It all comes down to economics. Fentanyl can be cheaply procured from Chinese laboratories, and a little bit goes a long way.
Consider what it takes to grow heroin — large plots of secure land, a labor force for farming and refining, and several months of time. Then you’ve got weather, pests and water supply issues to deal with.
Move the entire process to a lab and it is so much more predictable — and profitable.
With fentanyl, you need about 20 times less product to achieve the same high as heroin.
One kilogram of pure fentanyl from China, costing about $3,300 to $5,000, can be turned into a diluted powder sold on San Diego streets at a $300,000 value, according to the DEA. As it travels farther away from the border, the value skyrockets.
If it is in pill form, 1 kilogram of pure fentanyl can be made into 1 million pills containing 1 milligram of fentanyl each. Sell each pill for $10 to $20 a piece on the street and that is a $10 million to $20 million product.
“Obviously, there’s lots of money to be made in this,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri Hobson, who prosecutes fentanyl traffickers in San Diego.
Or, drug traffickers can make the fentanyl themselves.
The immediate precursor chemical for fentanyl, called 4ANPP, can be purchased from China for $1,000 per kilogram and mixed with a few other chemicals to produce about 1 kilogram of pure fentanyl.
And if 4ANPP is unavailable, a cook with a more advanced skill set can use the chemical NPP to make 4ANPP.
“If you get the right ingredients, it’s like making a cake,” Kirby said.
It all starts in China, where a booming legitimate chemical industry hides illegal producers, and precursor chemicals and other items such as pill presses have been scarcely regulated, according to a March report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
It wasn’t until February that the precursors NPP and 4ANPP were deemed controlled substances under Chinese law.
Much of the U.S. diplomatic effort in China focuses on regulating chemicals and fentanyl analogues legislatively. And therein lies the problem with controlling synthetic drugs: regulate one form and a chemist figures out how to slightly tweak the molecular structure to make it technically something else.
There’s butyrlfentanyl, brifentanyl, furanylfentanyl, lofentanyl and acetylfentanyl, for starters.
“It’s a game of whack-a-mole,” one U.S. official told a group of San Diego County law enforcement officers in a gathering on fentanyl in November, “but the alternative is no better.”
In February, the DEA took a swing at the whole fentanyl family by controlling any substance with a similar chemical makeup.
The pipeline from China to the U.S. is connected by an online marketplace that is moving commerce deeper underground on the dark web, where drug purchases can be made with anonymity.
The nature of fentanyl — extremely potent in small doses when pure — makes it ideal to move through the mail, keeping packages small and inconspicuous.
Experts say it’s hard to know just how much fentanyl is coming direct from China to the U.S.
A few U.S. investigations suggest it is on a large scale.
One network allegedly led by Jian Zhang of China sent thousands of packages of fentanyl, pill presses, stamps and dye to U.S. customers since 2013, according to federal prosecutors.
Another operator, Xiobing Yan, is accused of running at least two chemical plants in China capable of producing ton quantities of fentanyl and selling the drugs to U.S. customers online.
In a San Diego case, a Clairemont man was caught with homemade gelatin tablets of fentanyl and meth that he’d been selling over the dark web and shipping through the U.S. mail. He’d bought the tablets from an Oklahoma man over the dark web, who had made the pills from fentanyl purchased from China, Hobson said. The Clairemont man was also found with carfentanil, 100 times more potent than fentanyl, Hobson said.
With fentanyl deaths rising and the discovery of new networks, U.S. authorities are trying to figure out how to weed out the drug deliveries from the nearly 500 million international packages coming into the country’s five U.S. mail inspection facilities each year.
Part of the problem is China’s complex and misleading freight forwarding system, which moves parcels from shipper to shipper, making it virtually impossible to trace it to its original source. Fentanyl shippers will often mislabel the package as an extra layer of caution and forward the package through another country, such as Tonga, to avoid U.S. suspicion, federal authorities said.
A recent Senate investigation found another hurdle is the U.S. Postal Service’s failure to fully deploy a program to require more detailed sender and recipient information on packages — a tool that helps law enforcement target suspicious shipments.
Private shippers such as UPS and FedEx, however, are required to include the information, apparently making the U.S. Postal Service a more attractive option for illicit shippers, the report found.
In fiscal 2017, Customs and Border Protection interdicted 118 shipments totaling 240 pounds of fentanyl from express consignment carriers and 227 seizures totaling 92 pounds from the international mail, according to recent CBP testimony to Congress.
Mexico’s phantom drug
Much more fentanyl is being seized along the Mexican pipeline. But just how the fentanyl gets there from China, and how much, has been something of a mystery.
“Fentanyl has been something of a ghost,” said analyst Alejandro Hope, formerly a high-ranking official with the Mexican security agency, CISEN. “Nobody knows how much is being produced, how much is being imported, there is very little sound information about it.”
Renato Sales, Mexico’s national security commissioner, told the Mexico City newspaper, Reforma, in a recent interview that most fentanyl entering Mexico from China comes through the busy Pacific Coast port of Manzanillo in the state of Colima. In the interview, Sales also linked fentanyl trafficking to the rise in violence in the state.
Despite these statements, there have been no announcements of significant seizures or the drug or its precursors at the port.
On one subject there is little dispute — that the smuggling of fentanyl through Mexico to the U.S. border is largely conducted by the long-established Sinaloa cartel, and the rising powerhouse Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG, both large trafficking organizations with international reach.
The fentanyl that passes through Mexico to the U.S. border travels through many of the same routes used to smuggle heroin, meth, cocaine and marijuana — with seizures reported in recent months all along the western corridor that runs through Jalisco, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California. The drug has been found hidden inside shoes, in a passenger bus, and in numerous cargo parcels at the Tijuana airport.
In March 2017, Mexican military at a checkpoint in Sonora found 18 kilograms of fentanyl hidden in a semi-truck load of bell peppers. In August near the same area, the Mexican military made a record seizure after intercepting a big rig with grocery supplies headed from Mexico City to Tijuana that also carried 30,000 pills and 63 kilos of powder, both containing fentanyl.
While there is evidence of increased seizures of fentanyl in recent years, there remains debate as to just how much comes to the United States through Mexico. “I would believe that the majority come directly from China,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who studies illegal economies.
Another sensitive question is how much fentanyl is produced in Mexico.
Both Felbab-Brown and Hope, the security analyst, say there there would be little incentive for Mexican trafficking organizations to produce the drug, because of low weight and high potency. “It’s not really advantageous to buy precursors and make it,” she said. “To the extent that it is happening, it is still in the very nascent stages.”
Still, clues there have been indications of at least some efforts to produce the drug.
A 2006 overdose outbreak in Chicago led back to a fentanyl lab near Toluca, Mexico, where one of the operators told authorities he’d bought NPP from a Chinese company.
In 2016, Chinese customs agents seized 70 kilograms of fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl in a cargo container that was bound for Mexico.
In November, the Mexican military found a clandestine lab outside Culiacan, Sinaloa’s capital city, seizing 16 drums of NPP, as well as 40 kilograms of an unidentified solid substance, according to news bulletin from the Mexican attorney general’s office.
There is at least one documented case of a fentanyl precursor being sent south from the United States to Mexico.
In August, a CBP officer working the Los Angeles International Mail Facility intercepted a 1 kilogram package of 4ANPP from China. It was destined to a Post Office box in San Ysidro.
Investigators switched out the dangerous substance for a decoy, allowed the package to be delivered, and did round-the-clock surveillance to see who would pick it up.
It was Cesar Daleo, a former Border Patrol agent living in condo he’d bought in Mexico, authorities said. He placed the package in his trunk, then headed south on Interstate 5 to the border. He was pulled over just before he drove into Mexico, according to court records.
He is headed for trial next month.
Over the border
Much of the fentanyl is headed for San Diego, to be crossed in cars, in semi-trucks or by pedestrians at the ports of entry as all other drugs are.
In fiscal 2017, CBP seized 355 kilograms of fentanyl at San Diego ports of entry, accounting for 82 percent of all border crossing seizures nationwide, according to updated CBP data.
The couriers are Mexican citizens, U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and drivers with SENTRI passes, according to review of numerous border prosecutions. Some claim to be “blind mules.” Some know they are smuggling drugs, they just don’t know what kind. Some say they they drove the load across the border under threats of harm to them or their families.
Other smugglers appear to be more involved in the distribution cells. In one San Diego case, prosecutors say two women would smuggle drugs, including fentanyl, across the border and then use the Las Vegas restaurant they own as a front for sales and to launder money.
As that case illustrates, along with the massive amount of fentanyl seizures being reported across the U.S., most of the fentanyl that crosses here moves on.
The Midwest and East Coast have been especially hard hit by fentanyl overdose deaths. DEA experts attribute some of that to a long established demand for heroin in those parts of the country.
“We know when we see fentanyl seizures in Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Boston, New Jersey,” said Hobson, the federal prosecutor, “these highway interdictions of fentanyl are going to be traced back to the border.”
The fentanyl seized from the “Seinfeld” apartment came from Mexico, smuggled through California or Arizona. An alleged trafficker with Sinaloa ties, Francisco Quiroz-Zamora, is accused in an indictment of coordinating the loads from his home in San José del Cabo in Baja California Sur.
But San Diego has not been spared from the clutches of fentanyl.
Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have risen steadily in the county, from 33 in 2016 to 81 last year, according to medical examiner’s data.
Richard Summerfruit, a 26-year-old Poway man who had gotten clean from addiction several months earlier, relapsed a week before Thanksgiving in 2016.
“We don’t know what triggered him that day,” his mother, Pam Summerfruit, said in an interview.
In text messages, he’d asked his dealer for Percocet, or oxycodone.
Later that day he was found in distress in his car, and he died at a hospital.
The half pill he’d smoked was blue with the markings of a Percocet M30. Lab results revealed it was fentanyl instead.
“Had he known that, he wouldn’t have done it,” his mother said. “I know in my heart.”
The dealer, Alfred Lemus Jr., was prosecuted on a murder charge, with evidence that he’d known he was selling fentanyl-laced drugs from Mexico.
In a jail holding cell, Lemus bragged he was selling up to $3,000 in drugs a day, mainly the pills, according to court records.
“S**t’s dangerous though,” he said, adding someone “died off them pills.”
Lemus pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and earlier this month was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The Summerfruits will never be the same.
“We’re still healing. We have good days and bad days,” Pam said of her family, including her husband and their two daughters, both in their 30s. “It’s kind of like a rollercoaster. We’ll never be like we were as a family again.”
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