Smuggled in car seats, beneath clothing and in hidden car compartments, the amount of fentanyl seized this year at Arizona’s ports of entry on the Mexico border skyrocketed 600 percent over last year.

A few salt-grain size pieces of the synthetic opioid are fatal, and nearly 140 pounds were seized this year at Arizona’s ports, enough deadly doses for almost 32 million adults, and enough to make traffickers up to $1.3 billion.

Arizona and California ports of entry have become the doorstep to the U.S. for the global black market of one of the most dangerous drugs of the opioid crisis. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and highly addictive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ingredients are shipped from China, synthesized in labs in Mexico and Canada and smuggled into the United States.

Fentanyl seizures at Arizona ports of entry jumped from 20 pounds in fiscal 2016 to nearly 140 pounds in fiscal 2017, according to Customs and Border Protection data provided in response to a records request from the Arizona Daily Star.

Teresa Small, spokeswoman for CBP, said the majority of fentanyl seizures at Arizona ports happen at the Nogales port, but CBP cannot explain why, since “drug trafficking organizations control the specific supply.”

About 950 pounds of fentanyl were seized nationwide by CBP from October 2016 to the end of August 2017, more than double the 440 pounds seized in fiscal 2016. While about 60 percent of the total for the first 11 months of FY17 was seized at ports on the Mexico border, the other 40 percent, 400 pounds, were found at seaports, airports inside the U.S. and along the Canadian border.

More than half, 550 pounds, of the total fentanyl was seized at the San Diego and Tucson Field Offices on the Mexico border from October 2016 through July 2017. At the El Paso Field Office, about four pounds of fentanyl were seized in those 10 months and no fentanyl seizures were reported at the Laredo Field Office.

Before fiscal 2016, the ports of entry in Arizona had no fentanyl seizures, and the other CBP Field Offices along the border did not have data on fentanyl seizures, according to CBP.

Fentanyl is powerful enough that even accidently touching or accidently inhaling some of the powder can be dangerous, according to the DEA. Fentanyl overdose can result in cold and clammy skin, the bluing of hands and feet, a coma, failure to breathe and death.

The number of people who died from overdoses of fentanyl and fentanyl variations in the U.S. doubled from last January to this January, from 9,945 to 20,145, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Pima County, 13 people died by fentanyl overdose in the first six months of 2017. In his quarterly report, Chief Medical Examiner Greg Hess predicted about 270 overdose deaths from different drugs by the end of 2017 in Pima County, with over 20 of them involving fentanyl. This would be an increase from the 16 overdose deaths from fentanyl in the county last year.

Logistics of global industry

China is the primary source for fentanyl ingredients for the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to the DEA. A couple of pounds of these ingredients shipped from China cost a few thousand dollars, but traffickers can sell the same batch for millions in profit after manufacturing the drug.

Fentanyl pills are sold for $10 to $20 per pill depending on the purity and dosage. The DEA estimates that batches of one-milligram pills from about 2 pounds of fentanyl can make traffickers up to $20 million.

Small-scale manufacturing labs of fentanyl have been found in Canada and the United States also, and counterfeit pills containing fentanyl are smuggled into the United States from both Mexico and Canada, according to the DEA.

Fentanyl trade occurs across the southwest border both to Mexico from the U.S. and vice versa for manufacturing and consumption, according to the DEA. The supply lines for fentanyl are the same as the ones used for heroin, so traffickers traveling to the border can purchase both drugs from the same supplier.

Fentanyl can be sold alone or laced into other drugs, such as heroin, meth, cocaine, marijuana and spice at “mills,” which are usually hotel rooms or homes, according to the DEA. Lacing fentanyl into other drugs amplifies the effects, but buyers are not always told the original drug has been modified. Fentanyl sold alone is manufactured to resemble oxycodone.

A 2016 DEA report said that fentanyl has been mixed into counterfeit prescription pills since 2014, such as the pain medication Norco or the anti-anxiety medication Xanax.

Industrial pill press machines are openly available on the internet. One DEA search found a press priced at $995 capable of making 5,000 pills per hour and molds for oxycodone and Xanax pills for $115 to $130.

How it happens here

The Star reviewed 10 cases of fentanyl smuggling filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson. The cases were filed in fiscal 2017 and include seizures of 110 pounds of fentanyl at Nogales ports of entry, almost 80 percent of the total seized at Arizona ports in fiscal 2017.

In August, a CBP dog and X-ray scan detected almost 50 pounds of fentanyl under the backseat of 43-year-old Jose Cuevas Esparza’s Hyundai Sonata at the Mariposa port in Nogales. He told agents at the border two men in Mexico placed a note on his car a week earlier with $300 attached that read: “Don’t be stupid, drive your car to Nogales.”

Also in August, border officers discovered two bags containing 720 grams of fentanyl pills in 26-year-old Ruben Sekisaka’s Nissan Altima.

Sekisaka told them a man in Mexico threatened him to transport the pills, first with a rifle and by confiscating his car for over a week, and second, by parking the car in front of his mom’s house after hiding the drugs inside. He said he was given 400 pesos and promised $4,000 if he delivered the pills to Phoenix.

Zuilma Garcia Valencia, 25, wrapped 5 pounds of fentanyl in a blanket and hid it in a car seat behind her 10-month-old baby while attempting to cross the border in Nogales in April, according to court documents. She told officers she was promised $2,500 from an individual in Mexico for her help.

The DEA announced in a Nov. 9 news release that the trafficking of all fentanyl derivatives would be prosecuted in the same manner as the trafficking of original fentanyl and other controlled substances. One analog of fentanyl, carfentanil, is about 10,000 times more potent than morphine and mostly used in veterinary medicine to sedate elephants, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

In April, a drug-sniffing dog at the pedestrian port in Nogales detected drugs near a woman’s groin, which prompted authorities to escort the woman to a hospital. Once there, the woman, Cecilia Alvarez Molina, 39, removed over a pound of plastic-wrapped drugs with fentanyl or carfentanil properties from the area. She told officers she was promised $500 to carry the substances.

Illegal fentanyl trade happens in the interior of Tucson, too, and not always through the ports at the border. In August, an undercover agent coordinated a “purchase” of almost 1,200 fentanyl pills from a married couple selling at a hotel parking lot on West Grant Road. Other agents hiding at the scene arrested the wife, Lina Martinez Buelna, 46, once she removed the pills from her purse.

Jessica Suriano is a journalism student at the University of Arizona and an apprentice at the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her at starapprentice@tucson.com.