SAN DIEGO, Calif .– As the United States grapples with an increase in drug overdoses related to synthetic opioids, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has launched an initiative to disrupt the fentanyl supply chain.
“Never before have we said, ‘Taking this medicine won’t hurt you. It will kill you. In 2021, that’s where we are, “said John Callery, special agent in charge of the DEA field division in San Diego.” Therefore, ‘Wave Breaker’ – we have to educate people. We need to involve our local partners and our federal partners to understand exactly where we are. “
Callery has spent the past 29 years decoding the ever-changing textbooks of the drug cartels.
“It doesn’t change every decade; that changes every two or three years, ”Callery said. “The only difference is that the drugs on the streets of America right now are by far the deadliest they’ve ever been. “
From San Diego to New York, agents from 11 cities work closely together, synthesizing enforcement efforts targeting the Sinaloa Cartel. Divisions participating in Project Wave Breaker are credited with 85% of all synthetic opioids seized by the DEA in 2020.
“Sinaloa, think of Chapo, Chapo Guzmán and his children, Mayo Zambada. It’s the Sinaloa cartel. They’ve kind of taken over the fentanyl market as we speak, but you’ll definitely see that change in the next three years. “
The Wave Breaker Project will direct interdiction, enforcement and outreach efforts to the San Diego Field Division.
“You can call it OxyContin, Norco. You can call it whatever you want. At the end of the day, it’s heroin, ”Special Agent Callery said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Callery says increased demand for prescription opioids has fueled deadly flow of fentanyl into the United States
“If you dose it right, it’s a fantastic heroin effect. But if you mess up a microgram, you’re going to die. “
He says that 70 to 80 percent of all fentanyl in the United States first crosses the southern California border.
“The cartels have responded to that demand, for sure,” said Ev Meade, professor of practice at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego.
Historian of Mexico, Meade documents violence in places like Sinaloa.
“This fentanyl thing is deadly. It’s a public health emergency in both countries, ”Meade said. “But it’s also not like it’s something the Mexican cartels came up with and wanted to sell in the United States.
He says drug companies laid the groundwork for the crisis years before most Americans knew what fentanyl was.
“Who’s to blame? I think we all know who’s to blame when we think of it with the right hat. It’s the drug companies and American doctors who created the opioid crisis, over-prescribing and over-selling these. drugs, ”Meade said.
And Meade says much of the fentanyl supply has been imported into Mexico from countries like China.
“Mexico is a transit country, and the Mexican cartels are very good at it. They obviously have a lot of experience. They have diverse supply chains,” Meade said.
But Special Agent Callery says the scenery is changing.
“They [China] closed a lot, a lot of these fentanyl labs. Unfortunately, it is still going on illegally. But the scary part is something we predicted three or four years ago, ”Callery said. “Once this supply chain is blocked, or it shuts down, the cartels aren’t going to shut down. They started to set up their own fentanyl labs in Mexico. They began to create their own chemicals needed for fentanyl in Mexico. Sooner or later they will no longer need this connection with Asia. They will be able to produce themselves. “
Wave Breaker Divisions are also expanding their reach to the community.
“It’s not just about focusing on ‘let’s take OxyContin, grab fentanyl.’ It’s about involving communities. It’s about educating communities. DEA, now that COVID is lifting a bit, we can go back to schools, we can go back to medical schools, to pharmacists, at conventions, and talking to people about what’s been going on over the last year and a half, when everything was kind of on hold, ”Callery said.
“You can’t take a law enforcement approach without a public health approach – they have to go hand in hand,” Meade said. “You know, DARE is a stupid program, frankly. It never gave good results. But we need DARE for fentanyl. We need public information that says you could use it once and die. “
As the pandemic strained cartel operations in early 2020, Callery says they were able to adapt within months.
He says their division has discovered several tunnels since January 2020, but there are likely more that they are not aware of.
“It’s that cat and mouse game we’ve been playing since the 1950s in the war on drugs.”
But Callery says the DEA is adjusting its playbook as well.
“We put people in jail who supplied fentanyl to drug addicts and we charge them with homicide because they knew they were giving them a very lethal drug,” Callery said.
Established in 2018, Narcotics Task Force Team 10 is a multi-agency team hosted by the DEA to fight drug overdose deaths in San Diego. Team 10 agencies include the DEA, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, California Department of Healthcare Services, and San Diego Police Department.
“It’s not traditional. It’s not something the DEA has done in the past,” Callery said. “It’s something we’re doing here because the community needs it.”