Seizures of fentanyl by the Drug Enforcement Administration within the city of El Paso rose 456% between the fiscal years 2020 and 2021 — from 32 kilograms to 178 kilograms — and El Paso DEA Acting Director Greg Millard said the trend has continued apace in recent months.

Regionally, the increase was even more dramatic. In the DEA’s El Paso Division Area of Responsibility (which includes West Texas and the entire state of New Mexico), fentanyl seizures increased from 42 kilograms in the fiscal year 2020 to 300 kilograms in 2021, a 614% increase.

The rise in synthetic opioids coming into the area impacts El Pasoans in a number of ways, Millard said. 

“We have seen the trend of cartels in Mexico using social media to recruit young teenagers … daily workers coming over, to be couriers to bring the fentanyl over (to the El Paso area),” he said.

Although many of the drugs coming through El Paso are destined for other cities in the United States, Millard cautioned that it is still ending up on our streets. Both pure fentanyl and other drugs containing the potent narcotic — especially counterfeit prescription medication sold on social media laced with fentanyl — have proven deadly for El Pasoans.

“There is an uptick in overdose deaths in El Paso related to fentanyl,” Millard said.

Fentanyl-related deaths in El Paso County have risen sharply in recent years, from seven deaths in 2018, to 18 in 2019, to 45 in 2020. The trend has continued so far in 2021, with 45 fentanyl-related overdose deaths recorded as of Aug. 24.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also recently reported a significant increase in fentanyl seizures, confiscating nearly a third of the total amount of fentanyl seized in all of fiscal year 2021 in the first two weeks of December alone. The people caught smuggling the drugs across the border in recent weeks by CBP were all either U.S. citizens or U.S. permanent residents.

Nationally, the rise in fentanyl has also contributed to a devastating rise in overdose deaths. Among the 100,000 overdose deaths in the United States in the 12-month period that ended in April 2021, 64,000 involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Four out of every 10 pills containing fentanyl in the United States carry a potentially lethal dose, and the amount of fentanyl seized by the DEA so far in 2021 is enough to kill every American, according to DEA administrator Anne Milgram.

Milgram held a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday about the crisis and attributed the rise in fatal overdoses in part to increased use of social media and e-commerce sites for selling counterfeit prescription drugs.

“As easy as ordering a pizza online, Americans are buying what they think are real medicines,” she said, explaining that drugs are reaching U.S. drug consumers “faster, easier and cheaper than ever before.”

The DEA took the rare step of issuing a national public safety alert in September for the first time in over six years and warned Americans about the increase in fake prescription pills containing fentanyl.

Although Millard emphasized the importance of enforcement to address the rise in fentanyl in El Paso, he said it’s just one part of a multi-faceted approach to solving the problem.

“You can’t police your way out of an epidemic, we need the community’s support,” he said. “I just urge the citizens, urge the parents, friends and family to talk to their loved ones about the dangers of addiction.”

Cover photo: A large bag seized counterfeit 30 mg Oxy laced with fentanyl is displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration lab. (Photo courtesy of the DEA)

René Kladzyk reports on wide-ranging issues impacting the lives of El Pasoans. She also performs music as Ziemba. René can be reached at rkladzyk@elpasomatters.org. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.