Arizona: America’s Frontline Against Illegal Fentanyl

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

The drug is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate.

No one stops you when driving across the border from Nogales, Arizona, into Nogales, Mexico; crossing the other way is a different story. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers often interrogate drivers and search vehicles inside and out, using drug-sniffing dogs, x-ray scanners, handheld chemical analyzers, and trained detectives. One reason is that Nogales, Mexico, is now the world’s epicenter of illegal fentanyl trafficking, and Arizona’s southern border is the primary point of entry for illegal fentanyl entering the U.S.

Fentanyl is the deadliest drug in America now, killing an average of 200 Americans every day—over 70,000 per year. Just two milligrams, equivalent to about 10 to 15 grains of table salt, is enough to kill a person. In Mexico, illegal fentanyl is sold by the kilogram, and one kilogram can kill 500,000 people.

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Fentanyl travels from Arizona to all U.S. states. For example, in May, Alaska unveiled a “One Pill Can Kill” campaign, with state trooper Captain Cornelius Sims noting that a pill with a street value of $10 in Arizona can sell for $250 in rural Alaska.

To go on the offensive in Arizona, the CBP announced Operation Plaza Spike on April 10. In Mexican narcotrafficking lingo, “plaza” refers to a strategic geographical location in which a specific cartel controls criminal activities. A plaza can be at a local scale, like part of a city, or as large as an entire Mexican state or combination of states. Operation Plaza Spike’s first target is the Sinaloa Cartel’s Sergio “Gio” Valenzuela Valenzuela, boss of the Nogales plaza. The Sinaloas have been responsible for 44 percent of the illegal fentanyl entering the United States. “We’re going after plaza bosses, whose organizations are responsible for virtually everything that is smuggled into the US via the Southwest border,” said CBP official Troy A. Miller.

Meanwhile, on April 3, Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs signed a new law establishing minimum prison sentences for high-volume fentanyl traffickers. Those convicted with over 200 grams will face five- to ten-year prison terms, while repeat offenders face ten to twenty years. The law is also known as the Ashley Dunn Act, named for a 26-year-old Prescott, Arizona, woman who died in 2021 after ingesting just half a counterfeit pill laced with fentanyl.

Arizona’s current push against fentanyl trafficking follows the January announcement of a new U.S.-China counternarcotics group after talks in Beijing. Since a 2019 crackdown on fentanyl trafficking in China by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), most illegal fentanyl is now produced in Mexico, using fentanyl precursor chemicals manufactured mostly in China, but also in India and other countries. The precursors are sent by mail, either directly to Mexico or first to the U.S., then smuggled across the Arizona border into Mexico. Drug cartels in Mexico then use the precursors to make fentanyl powder, which is shipped back across the border, primarily into Arizona, where it is mixed with other drugs or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills.

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While the CCP stated that it is now committed to cooperating with the U.S. in combatting drug trafficking, the House of Representatives Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party revealed on April 16 its findings that the CCP “directly subsidizes the manufacturing and export of illicit fentanyl materials and other synthetic narcotics through tax rebates.” The committee found that the CCP provides grants and awards to “companies openly trafficking illicit fentanyl materials.” Fentanyl precursor chemicals are widely available on Chinese e-commerce sites, including some sites controlled by the CCP. The committee also found that the CCP has not cooperated with U.S. law enforcement, and has even tipped off Chinese companies that the U.S. was investigating them for fentanyl trafficking. In 2023, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for the first time indicted 12 Chinese chemical companies and 24 Chinese nationals for trafficking fentanyl. Many of the charges involved using Western Union and Bitcoin accounts to finance fentanyl deals, and even printing counterfeit postage stamps to defraud the U.S. Postal Service.

Half of all fentanyl seizures in the U.S. have occurred in Arizona. Case in point: On May 30, Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and other state agencies seized over one million fentanyl pills along with 455 pounds of methamphetamines, 41 guns, 22 vehicles, $200,000 in cash, and other drugs in a massive bust that arrested 31 drug traffickers operating between Arizona and Mexico. The week before, Arizona Department of Public Safety detectives in the Phoenix area seized 180 pounds of fentanyl with a street value of $1.5 million.

Every scale of law enforcement is enlisted in stopping fentanyl trafficking in Arizona. In 2023, the CBP seized 51.4 million fentanyl pills just in the small border town of Nogales, Arizona (pop. 20,000)—even more than the 42 million fentanyl pills that the DEA seized that year across the entire state. In addition, Arizona state troopers seized 1,500 pounds of fentanyl from November 2023 to April 2024. Nationwide, the CBP in 2023 seized nearly a billion illegal fentanyl pills, almost double the total in 2022.

To transport illegal fentanyl, Mexican cartels use hundreds of people as drug mules, as well as drones, aircraft, medieval-style catapults, pigeons, and tunnels. For example, in 2023, the Tucson Border Patrol uncovered a 250-foot tunnel through solid rock, with ventilation and electricity, from Nogales, Mexico, to Nogales, Arizona. Meanwhile, the CBP uses handheld chemical analyzers with laser and infrared technologies to identify fentanyl in unknown substances. These devices work even through clear packaging, which helps reduce the risk of fentanyl exposure among CPB personnel. The CPB also uses immunoassay test strips, which can detect the presence of fentanyl mixed in many kinds of drugs.

Compounding Arizona’s border security challenges is the fact that it is now also the number one point of entry in the largest migrant crisis in America’s history. The CBP Tucson Border Sector, which spans most of the Arizona border, ranks first thus far in 2024, with a monthly average of 342,000 border encounters with migrants (apprehensions and expulsions), up 134 percent since 2023. This sharp increase comes despite the five- to eight-meter high “Trump wall” that spans large sections of the Arizona-Mexico border.

Far more than just a narcotrafficking hub, Nogales, Mexico, is a sprawling industrial city with many U.S.-owned maquiladora assembly plants. Home to over a quarter million people, it is a gateway for hundreds of products made and assembled in the surrounding state of Sonora that are headed north, such as the Broncos assembled in the Ford plant in Hermosillo, three hours south. Around 20,000 trucks enter the U.S. at Nogales, Arizona, every month, and the enormous volume of freight coming through makes it especially challenging to track the movement of fentanyl precursors.

Many people ingest fentanyl unknowingly, as it is easily mixed with drinks and other drugs. The DEA says that fentanyl powder has been found in supplies of nearly all other illegal drugs, particularly cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana. And illegal fentanyl itself is often laced with other drugs. For example, in 2022, the DEA reported that 23 percent of the fentanyl powder and seven percent of the fentanyl pills it seized also contained xylazine, an animal tranquilizer also known as “tranq” or “tranq dope,” which rots flesh and bone and often leads to amputations. In the last few years, Mexican cartels have trafficked “rainbow” fentanyl pills in bright colors, made to look like candy. Even when users are aware that they are ingesting fentanyl, many fentanyl-related deaths occur because most dealers and users do not have the hospital-grade technology necessary for measuring doses minute enough to be safe. As DEA administrator Ann Milgram notes, whatever form it comes in, fentanyl is “tiny, it’s cheap, and it’s deadly.”

America is losing more lives every year to illegal fentanyl than it did in the entire Vietnam War, more than the number killed annually in car crashes and homicides combined. The crisis could spin much further out of control, as fentanyl is trafficked by an alliance between the world’s largest drug cartels, members of China’s world-leading manufacturing economy, and American drug dealers from Arizona to South Dakota to Florida, all facilitated by the internet. Education campaigns must emphasize that America today is one of the most dangerous places in history to be using drugs, and that no unprescribed or illicit drug can be trusted as safe.

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This article appeared in The American Mind and is reproduced with permission.

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