A Tijuana man was arraigned Thursday in federal court on charges that he smuggled into the U.S. almost 6,000 pills containing the ultra-deadly drug fentanyl in a case that signals an alarming trend, according to officials.
In recent weeks, law enforcement officials have become increasingly concerned over the number of fentanyl seizures at the Ports of Entry by Customs and Border Protection Officers and at the United States Border Patrol checkpoints, officials said.
“We are extremely troubled by the number of fentanyl seizures we’ve seen recently,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. “Drug users, listen up! This is life or death. If you are buying painkillers on the street and not the pharmacy, your drugs might contain fentanyl, and even miniscule amounts of fentanyl can have devastating consequences for those who abuse it or literally even touch it. The extreme danger of fentanyl cannot be overstated.”
When fentanyl, a Schedule II synthetic opioid painkiller, is produced in clandestine laboratories, it can be 100 times more potent than morphine. Exposure to even a trace amount of fentanyl through inhalation or absorption through the skin can be fatal, according to authorities.
In federal court in San Diego Thursday, defendant Jose Arturo Acevedo, 35, of Tijuana, Mexico, was arraigned.
Acevedo was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on multiple counts related to the smuggling of 5,857 pills containing fentanyl, 55 pounds of methamphetamine, 24 pounds of cocaine, and 12 pounds of heroin.
His next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 24.
The blue pills had markings and the physical dimension of oxycodone, but the Drug Enforcement Administration lab determined that they contained fentanyl. Acevedo was charged with four counts of importation of a controlled substance.
According to the complaint originally filed in the case, Acevedo entered the San Ysidro Port of Entry on July 19, 2016, in his vehicle that contained 24 packages of drugs concealed in a speaker box lying on the floor of the vehicle behind the front seats near the passenger door.
In the last two weeks, there have been three additional law enforcement seizures of fentanyl in powder form by Border officials.
On September 9, 2016, defendant Philip Randolph Lilien, 64, a Denver resident living temporarily in Mexico at the time of the offense, was charged with smuggling 19 pounds of fentanyl and 20 pounds of heroin through the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
He was apprehended by Customs and Border Protection Officers. According to charging documents, the CBP officers found 11 packages of drugs which were concealed in a spare tire located inside the cargo area of Lilien’s vehicle.
Lilien is currently charged with importation of controlled substances.
On Sept. 12, defendant David Martinez-Carrillo, age 26, of Mexico, was arrested at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Pine Valley after agents found 18 pounds of fentanyl and eight pounds of methamphetamine in his vehicle.
Martinez-Carrillo has been charged with possession of controlled substances with intent to distribute.
And most recently, on Sept. 16, Arturo Torres-Carballo, 28, from El Centro, California, and Erik Alejandro Dominguez, 23, of Mexico, were arrested near the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 86.
According to charging documents, Border Patrol Agents found 33 pounds of fentanyl concealed in 13 packages located in a secret compartment under the rear speaker area of the vehicle.
On Sept. 19, the defendants appeared in court for arraignment on a felony charge of possession with intent to distribute. They are set for a preliminary hearing next week.
“Drug users seeking illicit prescription pills on the street can no longer be sure that they are getting a pharmaceutical product and may be getting fentanyl instead,” said DEA San Diego Special Agent in Charge William Sherman. “Fentanyl is not a better high, it is a potential death sentence.”
“Fentanyl has clearly become a growing epidemic,” said Chief Patrol Agent Richard A. Barlow, of the U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego Sector. “The hazard that it poses is deeply concerning and for that reason, it must be aggressively addressed by the law enforcement community.”
“Fentanyl has increasingly infiltrated our community, imposing a serious and harmful threat as it becomes more common and easily accessible,” said Dave Shaw, special agent in charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.
Adding, “Our agents are working closely with local law enforcement partners to identify the criminals responsible and cut off the channels that support this arising threat.”
Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration released a nationwide public health alert on fentanyl. Fentanyl is anywhere from 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin. The drug and its analogues are being produced to a large extent in China.
DEA investigations reveal that the Mexican drug cartels, including Sinaloa, are purchasing fentanyl directly from China and producing fentanyl from precursors sourced from China.
In some parts of the country, heroin is being spiked with fentanyl or being replaced by fentanyl. There are a number of reasons why, but it mainly comes down to economics. Fentanyl generates greater profits than heroin.