Tracking the Mexican Cartels’ drug network in the United States is top priority for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as the agency reports most of America’s drugs containing fentanyl stem from the southern border.
“The Jalisco new generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, these two cartels are driving the drug overdose epidemic,” said Special Agent in Charge Brad Byerley of the New Orleans Field Division, which oversees drug investigations in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.
Even though New Orleans is nearly 700 miles away from the Mexico border, Byerley said the greater New Orleans area is a gateway for drugs to be distributed to other states as Interstates 10, 55, 30, 40 and 65 are considered major drug trafficking routes.
“The Cartels are using these interstates to get their product to local distributors in the New Orleans metro area as well as other areas throughout the south and the continental U.S.,” Byerley said.
In a recent year-long investigation called Operation Last Mile, the New Orleans Field Division seized over 147,000 fentanyl pills and 63 pounds of fentanyl powder.
“That’s enough to take out the metro New Orleans area,” Byerley said. “We went after what we call ‘the last mile,’ that being from the cartel to the local distributor.”
Nationwide, the DEA arrested 3,337 drug distributors and dealers operating in local communities, and seized nearly 44 million fentanyl pills and more than 6,500 pounds of fentanyl powder.
Despite the successful busts and arrests, millions of drugs containing lethal doses of fentanyl are still making it to various U.S. cities.
The coroner in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, sees firsthand what happens when these drugs make it past the “last mile.”
“If you’d like to walk back to the morgue, I can show you the results,” said Dr. Charles Preston. “In my opinion, until there is some securing of the southern border, that pipeline is going to continue to come into the United States.”
As of May 12, fentanyl was included in 32 of the 48 drug overdoses in St. Tammany Parish for this calendar year. In 2022, 91 of the 127 overdoses included fentanyl – which is nearly 72%.
“What’s really concerning now is within the last month, we were able to identify some ‘fentanyl cousins,’ if you will, that are generally more potent and more deadly,” Preston said.
He explained variations of fentanyl have the same base chemical structure, but one or two molecules might be different, creating a whole new drug. Some of these variations go undetected because they don’t show up on a routine lab test.
“Keeping up with these evolving drugs is very difficult,” Preston said. “We’re watching the trends and how our office approaches this is as a medical catastrophe.”
Another class of drugs that can go undetected through standard testing are nitazenes, also referred to as “ISO,” a new group of powerful, illicit synthetic opioids that were never approved for medical use.
“The future just gets scarier and scarier as amateur chemists are driven by profit motives to produce more powerful, cheaper drugs,” Preston said.
The St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office is a member of the Regional Organized Crime Information Center which allows Preston to warn local law enforcement about the drugs he comes across.
“If we’re seeing a certain type of fentanyl in Galveston and now we’re seeing this fentanyl in Little Rock, in Slidell; where do you think we’re going to see it next? In Gulfport,” Preston said. “This can help law enforcement agencies track shipments and make interventions.”
While the interstates are one route of transportation for the Mexican Cartels, social media – which the DEA has deemed the “super highway” – is also making the movement of drugs easier.
Through Operation Last Mile, the DEA New Orleans Field Division was able to trace drug deals on 45 different social media platforms.
“Anyone with access to social media can be a victim of the Mexican Cartel,” Byerley said. “It has totally changed the game as far as how these narcotics traffickers do business. Fentanyl is lethal, but the cartels don’t care because they know there are another 302 million people out on social media.”