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DIGGING DEEPER: DEA focuses on keeping fentanyl from coming into US

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Last week at the Port of Nogales, federal officers seized nearly 40,000 fentanyl tablets. The street value of those drugs was $120,000.

Officials told the Digging Deeper Team fentanyl is a huge problem causing many to overdose and die.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is aiming to stem the tide of fentanyl coming into the U.S. They just launched Project Wave Breaker.

DEA officials said the United States is becoming a fentanyl nation. That is why the DEA officials are focusing on high-impact areas, including Tucson and Phoenix, to keep the deadly synthetic drug from coming into the U.S. 

"This is a national security issue when it comes to the safety of our community," DEA Special Agent Bill Czopek said. "Fentanyl is a killer.  Bottom line, it is a killer." 

Patricia Bohard knows that firsthand. Christmas Day 2017, she lost her eldest son, James Jr. and her ex-husband to an accidental overdose of fentanyl. She said she also nearly lost her second son. 

"It came back as fentanyl in their bloodstream," she said. "Mixed with alcohol they suppressed the respiratory they went into cardiac arrest."

DEA officials said 90% of the drugs that enter the U.S. come through the southwest border. They also and backpackers, who once carried up to 500 pounds of marijuana across the border, now carry meth and fentanyl-laced OxyContin pills. 

"We are at the mouth of the serpent if you will," special agent Cheri Oz, who heads the DEA's Phoenix division said. "We, need to put all our efforts at eradicating logistical nightmare areas."

The Phoenix division is one of eleven where Project Wave Breaker will be implemented.

These are areas where 85 percent of all synthetic opioids were seized in 2020 by the DEA.

These areas include Phoenix, New York, San Diego, New England, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, San Francisco, Houston and El Paso.

"It is highly addictive," she said. "They can put it the cocaine, marijuana and heroin." 

DEA said the Mexican drug cartels, in particular the Sinaloa Cartel, are flooding the communities. 

"From the business side, a better return on investment, meaning, they're making more money selling these products," Oz said.

This is better for the cartels. However, for families like Patricia Bohard, it is heartbreaking because their loved ones are dying.

The DEA's target to reduce fentanyl coming across the border, crime and violence associated with drug trafficking and bottom line to save lives.

"If it saves lives, that's all that counts.  I mean that's what we're in that for to save as many people as you can," Bohard said. "And I think you would."

According to the CDC, more than 87,000 people died from overdoses last year.

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Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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