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Fentanyl seizures at U.S. southern border rise dramatically

Federal agents say the powerful synthetic opioid is becoming a drug of choice for the cartels because it’s highly profitable and easier to smuggle.

EL PASO, Texas — Federal agents in this section of the southern border say they’ve seen a staggering 4,000 percent increase in fentanyl seizures over the last three years.

Those busts are not at ports of entry, where most smuggled drugs are typically found. The Border Patrol says the rising amount of fentanyl is being found in the desert – transported by increasingly brazen smugglers who are exploiting stretched federal resources.

In 2018, the Border Patrol in the El Paso sector found just one pound of fentanyl outside ports of entry. In 2019, two pounds. In 2020, nine.

During the 2021 fiscal year, agents have found 41 pounds so far – a dramatic rise that experts attribute to the increasing role in drug cartels producing the illicit drug themselves with raw materials from China. The sharp rise from 2018 to 2020 suggests the coronavirus pandemic did not artificially inflate the 2021 numbers.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal, depending on a person’s body size. One kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill 500,000 people. A kilogram is roughly 2.2 pounds.

“For the first time, we’re starting to see these tactics where fentanyl is being smuggled between ports of entry,” Chief Border Patrol Agent Gloria Chavez said in an interview. “Cartels are very creative. They find ways to intimidate migrants and find ways to illegally have them transport that narcotic into the United States.”

Sources with the Drug Enforcement Administration tell NBC News that fentanyl is becoming a drug of choice for the cartels because it’s highly profitable, extremely potent and easier to smuggle into the U.S. because of its small size.

Meth seizures away from ports of entry are also up 85 percent so far this fiscal year.

Meth found in a spare tire at the Ysleta port of entry on June 15, 2021.CBP

Fentanyl and meth seizures at the ports of entry are also up, 719 percent and 781 percent, respectively.

‘Fentanyl has changed everything’

Two years ago, Matt Capelouto’s daughter, Alexandra, was a sophomore at Arizona State University studying sociology.

During winter break in 2019, she ingested what she thought was an oxycodone pill that turned out to be laced with well over a lethal amount of fentanyl. She died in her California home two days before Christmas.

Her father is adamant that her death should not be called an overdose.

“Alex, along with hundreds of thousands of other kids and young adults, was fatally poisoned,” he said in an interview. “Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin, up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and -- believe me when I say this because I was in these shoes -- don't think something like this cannot happen to your family.”

Capelouto has been lobbying the California Legislature to pass “Alexandra’s Law,” which would hold drug dealers more accountable for deaths. Right now, “implied malice” must be proven.

“Fentanyl has changed everything,” he said. “This isn't marijuana they're dealing. They're dealing death.”

As he calls on the Biden administration to take action on the federal level, he is also imploring parents to cherish their children.

Alexandra Capelouto, 20, died when she ingested a pill she thought was Oxycodone. It turned out to be laced with illicit fentanyl.Courtesy Matt Capelouto

“Don’t take your kids for granted,” he said. “Tell them you love them every day.”

War of words about the wall

In Sunland Park, New Mexico -- near El Paso – most of the undocumented immigrants Border Patrol agents encounter aren’t families turning themselves in. Instead, they often end up chasing – or fighting -- single adult men who run from them.

“They assault the agent because they want to get away,” Chavez, the chief Border Patrol agent, said. “It’s the only obstacle between them and freedom into the United States.”

In the hotly politicized debate over immigration, it shows the complexity of any search for solutions. Yes, there are many desperate women and children seeking asylum. But there are also drug cartels looking to exploit an increasingly overloaded immigration system.

Critics of the Biden administration’s policy of allowing unaccompanied children to stay in the United States argue it’s a primary reason that there’s been a rise in migration since he took office. The reality is much more complicated. The numbers were already rising during the last few months of the Trump administration. Experts say the coronavirus pandemic slowed migration last year and so as Covid waned, this surge was a predictable increase. Also, two massive hurricanes that slammed Central America late last year have added to the misery and displacement.

Still, Republicans have seized the messaging that President Biden has fueled a border “crisis.”

On Wednesday, former President Donald Trump is set to visit South Texas along with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who recently announced the state would set aside $250 million to continue building a wall along the border, which Biden halted. The fact some of the money would presumably come from taxpayer dollars intended for Covid relief has infuriated Democrats. Abbott’s proposal faces numerous hurdles, including opposition from environmentalists, immigration advocates and some property owners along the border.

Chavez said she had neither been consulted nor informed of the governor’s plan to continue building a wall. But she said she generally supports a border barrier – partly to slow down drug smugglers.

“It keeps our agents safe,” she said. “These smuggling organizations (are) already doing drive-throughs through areas where my border barrier is weak or where there is none. And that is concerning to me.”