Starting with fentanyl, one of the most devastating opiates on the market: this euphoric-boosting synthetic drug is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times greater than morphine, according to the US Control Center Diseases (CDC), US federal health agency. Some grains of fentanyl can be deadly.
If it exists as a legal prescription pain medication, illegal fentanyl is now ubiquitous in the United States. According to figures still provisional from the Ministry of Health, 32,000 people died of fatal overdoses involving fentanyl and other synthetic opiates in 2018 – 46% of fatal overdoses in the United States.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," says an employee of this vast warehouse lit by fluorescent lamps.
The majority of fentanyl found here – whether it is classic fentanyl or "analogues", similar products, but with slightly different chemical formula – has been bought by consumers or traffickers via the dark web, especially in Hong Kong or Mainland China, against payment by cryptocurrency, PayPal or credit card, according to several officials.
Buyers can receive the goods "without leaving home. They can order fentanyl directly in China and have it delivered to their door, "Ray Donovan, DEA's New York Area Director for the New York Region, told AFP.
Of the thousands of letters and packages received at the warehouse, Robert Redes, Division Head, remembers, among other things, a musical birthday card that arrived from Toronto, Canada, in March 2018. It had a seemingly innocuous appearance and concealed three grams of fentanyl.
The card led to the arrest of a 34-year-old drug dealer in Pennsylvania who had bought fentanyl on the dark Web.
As packets from China are suspect, traffickers often go through an intermediary based in another country, says Donovan, the main architect of the arrest of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman aka "El Chapo", co-leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel sentenced to life in New York in July.
In the JFK warehouse, it's impossible to verify everything: with the help of specially trained dogs, the customs officers examine an average of 1,000 packages per day, considered "at risk" on the basis of information collected upstream.
Suspicious packets are x-rayed or lasered, or sometimes opened with a knife, with infinite precautions for fear of inhaling fentanyl.
Unlike seizures of cocaine or heroin, which are often measured in kilograms, "the quantities of fentanyl arriving by mail are small, Internet purchases of a very pure quality", which will be "cut" before being sold in the street, underlines Mr. Redes.
To help agents in their research, a laser spectrometer, connected to a drug database, identifies some 450 kinds of narcotics without opening the package.
But traffickers frequently introduce new analogs into the market, constantly requiring "up-to-date" data libraries, says Redes.
In addition, unlike its private competitors such as FedEx or UPS, the US Post has a still limited electronic tracking system, complicating the work of agents. It is only at the end of 2020 that the monitoring will cover all international shipments.
"To win the battle, the key is ultimately more in technology than in the number of agents," Redes says, as the US government launches a $ 1.5 million award competition to improve detection. drugs in the packs.
For Bridget Brennan, a prosecutor in charge of drug trafficking cases in New York, who in 20 years has seen the ravages of cocaine, crack, heroin, and now this opiate, "fentanyl is the perfect product ".
To make heroin from the poppy, which grows in the Mexican chain of Sierra Madre, and turn the dough into drugs, it takes four months, summarizes this elegant woman of 64 years, ex-journalist.
Making a kilogram of fentanyl in the lab is much faster and costs about 10 times less than making heroin: between $ 5,000 and $ 10,000, she says.
Fentanyl is so powerful that with just one kilo you can make half a million pills. According to the DEA, a kilo of illegal fentanyl can generate at least $ 1.5 million in revenue in the United States.
300,000 dead in 20 years
If overdoses are so frequent, it's because "people who buy drugs in the street have no idea what they are buying: it can be pills stamped oxycodone (opioid painkiller close to morphine, NDLR ), but which are actually fentanyl, "so much more powerful," she says. Often, "the trafficker himself does not know what he is selling".
The American opioid crisis began in the late 1990s with over-prescription of opioid pain medications, including oxycodone sold by the Purdue laboratory under the name OxyContin. Until then, this type of medication was reserved for serious diseases such as cancer, because of the risks of habituation.
Far from the cliches of the addict, 8 to 12% of patients taking these drugs then develop an opioid dependence, frequently switching to illegal drugs including fentanyl, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse.
A danger that Prince's death had brutally illustrated in 2016: the investigation showed that he had died of an overdose of a counterfeit opioid drug, hydrocodone, which had been mixed with fentanyl.
From China and Mexico
China was the first country to manufacture illegal fentanyl for the US market. Fentanyl trafficking in Mexico begins in 2005, according to Ray Donovan, when Colombian cartels began exporting their own cocaine to Europe, Australia, Russia or China, depriving Mexican cartels of market opportunities.
The Mexican cartels – starting with the Sinaloa cartel – then sought to produce poppies themselves, hoping to concoct a heroine as powerful as the Colombian.
Not getting there, they started importing fentanyl from China, mixing it with heroin and making it more euphoric and more competitive.
After the first capture of El Chapo in Mexico in 2014, his sons and former associates "are starting to create more fentanyl labs and smuggle fentanyl to the US to earn more," says Donovan.
To reduce costs and circumvent Chinese law, they then imported from China the chemical precursors used in the composition of fentanyl, themselves producing the finished product in clandestine laboratories.
Pushed by the Trump government, which accuses China – against the backdrop of a trade war – fueling the opiate crisis, Beijing recently added all sorts of fentanyl to a list of controlled substances.
But this list does not include all the precursors, allowing Mexicans to continue to stock up and fill the void left by China, said in July before a congressional committee Matthew Donahue, head of the DEA for North America. North and central.
Mexican cartels are now directly manufacturing certain precursors, a "worrying development," according to the official.
Today, fentanyl seizures at the JFK postal center are down. According to the authorities, most of the fentanyl enters the United States through the border posts with Mexico, all cut and ready to be sold at retail.
Mixed with diluents or heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine, or squeezed into pills to look like oxycodone tablets, it gets hidden in vehicles or on people crossing foot border posts.
CBP Executive Director Thomas Overacker recently acknowledged that only about 1% of the tens of thousands of passenger cars and 16% of trucks traveling between the two countries are inspected.
The seizures, however, exploded: 985 kilograms of fentanyl and illegal analogues were intercepted in 2018, compared to less than a kilo in 2013, according to CBP.
Once in New York, says Donovan, fentanyl is distributed by Dominican criminal organizations, which launder revenue by Chinese mafias, increasingly present in Mexico, witnessing the interweaving of networks and globalization traffic.