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More than half the fentanyl pills seized by the DEA came through Arizona. Here's why

Fentanyl seized by the DEA.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
Fentanyl seized by the DEA.

Fentanyl continues to be a huge problem across the country and in Arizona.

Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 42 million fentanyl pills in the state; that was up from 28 million in 2022 and 12 million the year before. Maricopa County officials say fentanyl has overtaken meth as the deadliest drug in the state, and that on average, three people die every day in the county because of fentanyl.

To get a sense of the scope of the problem and potential solutions, The Show reached out to Cheri Oz, special agent in charge for the DEA in Arizona.

Conversation highlights

How much of what you and your agents do and deal with is related to fentanyl?

CHERI OZ: Most of it. I couldn't give you a percentage because we do polydrug organizations and most of our organizations now are polydrug shipments. But fentanyl is the our No. 1 threat and is the majority of what my guys do every day.

It seems like there's been a really significant increase in the amount of of fentanyl, the amount of pills that have been seized, even just over the last few years.

 OZ: Absolutely. In 2020, we saw very little fentanyl. And every year since, the number has doubled. And so last year we were over 42 million fentanyl pills seized. Which is more than half of the pills seized throughout the United States were just seized here in Arizona.

Why do you think it is that so many of these pills are coming in through this state?

OZ: Well, I can tell you very specifically why. The people that are responsible for the fentanyl being brought into the United States are the Sinaloa cartel. And I should preface that by saying there are many cartels, and all of the cartels participate in contraband and drug trafficking. But for us here in Arizona, our No. 1 threat is the Sinaloa cartel. The Sinaloa cartel is operated out of Mexico and they own — for lack of a better word — all of the logistic ports and routes that run through Arizona.

So how are these being brought in?

OZ: Any way that you can imagine. Drug trafficking in the United States is a $3-trillion business. So the Sinaloa cartel has three trillion reasons and motivations to get their, their contraband, their fentanyl, their methamphetamine into the United States, in Arizona. So they are bringing it in with drones, with tunnels through, the mail. Any way that you can imagine, it's coming. The most common way that we still see contraband being brought in and fentanyl specifically is on people.

Is there any way to know how much fentanyl you're not able to catch? Is there any way to know how much is actually getting across?

OZ: That is a great question, and the short answer is no. But let me explain to you why. So in the past drug trafficking, we've always known how much cocaine, how much heroin, how much marijuana there exists in the world, because those are all agriculture-based illicit drugs. In the past, we had an idea of how much, how many poppies, how many opium poppy poppies were being grown in the world. So we had an idea of how much agriculture that would yield. With synthetic drugs, we have no way of knowing how much exists in the world. All of these illicit drugs — dangerous, dangerous illicit drugs — are being manufactured in Mexico. The precursors are coming mostly from China. And the conversion is being done 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And those are brought on a continuous flow into the United States.

Given the fact that they are being manufactured pretty much any minute of any day, is it safe to say that it's probably more than the agricultural products that were being grown?

OZ: Sure, because those things were all contingent upon labor upon weather about growing cycles. So there was a limited capacity for volume. In this synthetic world, there's nothing stopping the production of more and more and more.

So how do you try to go about stopping that?

OZ: I have to tell you the agents, and intel analysts, and diverse investigators, the staff at the DEA, and your local state and other federal law enforcement — these are people who are so focused on doing the right thing and really, really laser-focused on saving lives. And so we are very effective in stopping the flow, because every single pill is one life. And that's what I have to come back to. I'm especially in charge, but I'm also a mom, and I'm a mom of teenagers. And so I have to think about the threat to all of our families and to our children. So our challenge is extraordinary. It is a huge, huge problem. And it's, these fentanyl pills are everywhere. But I know that every day my people work really, really hard.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.
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