/ Modified feb 1, 2019 11:46 a.m.

US Border Agency Announces Biggest-Ever Fentanyl Bust, Worth $3.5M

Customs and Border Protection said agents captured more than 250 pounds of the deadly opioid.

Fentanyl seizure 20180131 Customs and Border Protection displays the largest fentanyl seizure in agency history, at the Nogales Port of Entry, Jan. 31, 2019. (PHOTO: Nancy Montoya/AZPM)

PHOENIX — U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials announced Thursday their biggest fentanyl bust ever, saying they captured nearly 254 pounds of the synthetic drug that is fueling a national epidemic of fatal opioid overdoses from a secret compartment inside a load of Mexican produce heading into Arizona.

The drug was found hidden Saturday morning in a compartment under the rear floor of a tractor-trailer after a scan during a secondary inspection indicated "some anomalies" in the load, and the agency's police dog team alerted officers to the presence of drugs, Nogales CBP Port Director Michael Humphries said.

Most of the seized fentanyl with an overall street value of about $3.5 million was in white powder form, but about 2 pounds of it was contained in pills. Agents also seized nearly 395 pounds of methamphetamine, with a street value of $1.18 million, Humphries said.

"The size of a few grains of salt of fentanyl, which is a dangerous opioid, can kill a person very quickly," Humphries said. The seizure, he said, had prevented an immeasurable number of doses of the drug "that could have harmed so many families."

President Donald Trump praised the bust in a tweet Thursday, writing: "Our great U.S. Border Patrol Agents made the biggest Fentanyl bust in our Country's history. Thanks, as always, for a job well done!"

The Drug Enforcement Administration said the previous largest U.S. seizure of fentanyl had been in August 2017 when it captured 145 pounds of the drug in a Queens, New York, apartment that was linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. Before that, the largest recorded fentanyl seizure was 88 pounds nabbed from a pickup truck in Bartow County, Georgia.

Mexican traffickers have been increasingly smuggling the drug into the United States, mostly hidden in passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers trying to head through ports of entry in the Nogales, Arizona, and San Diego areas.

Doug Coleman, the DEA's special agent in charge for the Phoenix division, expressed admiration for the size of the recent bust, emphasizing that it was not the product of any intelligence from his agency but rather "pure, old fashioned police work" by the agent who pulled the truck over.

"It was totally a cold hit" based on the agent's hunch, Coleman said.

Fentanyl has caused a surge in fatal overdoses around the U.S., including the 2016 accidental death of pop music legend Prince, who consumed the opioid in counterfeit pills that looked like the narcotic analgesic Vicodin.

U.S. law enforcement officials say the illicit version of the painkiller is now seen mostly as a white powder that can be mixed with heroin for an extra kick as well as blue pills that are counterfeits of prescription drugs like oxycodone.

The legal prescription form of the drug is used mostly to provide relief to cancer patients suffering unbearable pain at the end of their lives.

DEA officials have said that while 85 percent of the illicit fentanyl entering the United States from Mexico is seized at San Diego-area border crossings, an increasing amount is being detected on the border with Arizona, a state where the Sinaloa cartel controls the drug trade and fatal fentanyl overdoses are rising.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in a recent report that fentanyl is now the drug most often involved in fatal overdoses across the country, accounting for more than 18,000, or almost 29 percent, of the 63,000 overdose fatalities in 2016.

By posting comments, you agree to our
AZPM encourages comments, but comments that contain profanity, unrelated information, threats, libel, defamatory statements, obscenities, pornography or that violate the law are not allowed. Comments that promote commercial products or services are not allowed. Comments in violation of this policy will be removed. Continued posting of comments that violate this policy will result in the commenter being banned from the site.

By submitting your comments, you hereby give AZPM the right to post your comments and potentially use them in any other form of media operated by this institution.
Arizona Public Media broadcast stations are licensed to the Arizona Board of Regents. Arizona Public Media and AZPM are registered trademarks of the Arizona Board of Regents.
The University of Arizona