SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As the U.S. grapples with a surge in drug overdoses linked to synthetic opioids, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has launched an initiative to disrupt the fentanyl supply chain.
“Never before in the past have we said, 'taking this drug will not hurt you. It will kill you.' In 2021, that’s where we are," said John Callery, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA San Diego Field Division. "Hence, 'Wave Breaker' – we have to get people educated. We have to get our local partners on board, and our federal partners, to understand exactly where we are.”
Callery has spent the last 29 years decoding the ever-changing playbooks of drug cartels.
“It doesn’t change every decade; it changes every two or three years," said Callery. "The only difference is the drugs on the streets of the United States right now are, by far, the deadliest they’ve ever been.”
From San Diego to New York, agents in 11 cities are working closely together, synthesizing enforcement efforts targeting the Sinaloa Cartel. Divisions participating in Project Wave Breaker are credited with 85% of all synthetic opioids seized by the DEA in 2020.
“Sinaloa, think of Chapo, Chapo Guzmán and his kids, Mayo Zambada. That’s Sinaloa Cartel. They have kind of garnered the market on fentanyl, as we speak, but you’ll certainly see that change in the next year to three years.”
Project Wave Breaker will direct interdiction, enforcement, and outreach efforts to the San Diego Field Division.
“You can call it OxyContin, Norco. You can call it whatever you want. At the end of the day, it’s heroin," said Special Agent Callery.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Callery says the surge in demand for prescription opioids fueled the deadly flow of fentanyl into the U.S.
“If you dose it right, it’s a fantastic heroin high. But If you’re off by a microgram, you’re going to die."
He says 70 to 80 percent of all fentanyl in the U.S. first crosses the southern California border.
“The cartels responded to that demand, for sure," said Ev Meade, a professor of practice at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego.
A historian of Mexico, Meade is documenting the violence in places like Sinaloa.
“This fentanyl stuff is lethal. It's a public health emergency in both countries," said Meade. “But it’s also not like this was something that the Mexican cartels dreamed up and wanted to sell to the United States."
He says pharmaceutical companies laid the groundwork for the crisis, years before most Americans knew what fentanyl was.
"Who’s responsible? I think we all know who’s responsible when we think about it with the right hat on. It's the drug companies and U.S. physicians who created the opioid crisis; over-prescription and over-sale of these drugs," said Meade.
And Meade says much of the fentanyl supply has been imported into Mexico from countries like China.
"Mexico is a transit country, and the Mexican cartels are really good at that. They have, obviously, a lot of experience. They have diverse supply chains," said Meade.
But Special Agent Callery says the landscape is shifting.
“They [China] closed many, many of those fentanyl labs. Unfortunately, it’s still ongoing illicitly. But the scary part is something we predicted three, four years ago," said Callery. "Once that supply chain gets blocked, or it stops, the cartels are not going to stop. They’ve started creating their own fentanyl labs in Mexico. They've started creating their own chemicals required for fentanyl in Mexico. So sooner or later, they won't need that connection to Asia anymore. They'll be able to produce on their own."
Wave Breaker divisions are also expanding outreach to the community.
"It's not just focusing on, 'let’s seize OxyContin, let's seize fentanyl.' It's getting the communities involved. It's educating communities. DEA's, now that COVID is lifting a little bit, we're able to get back out to schools, we're able to get back out to medical schools, to pharmacists, to conventions, and talk to people about what's been going on in the last year-and-a-half when everything's kind of been on hold," said Callery.
“You can’t do a law enforcement approach without a public health approach – they’ve got to go hand-in-hand," said Meade. “You know, DARE is a stupid program, frankly. It never showed good results. But we need DARE for fentanyl. We need public information that says, you could use this once and die."
While the pandemic strained cartel operations in early 2020, Callery says they were able to adapt within months.
He says their division has discovered several tunnels since January 2020, but there's likely more they aren't aware of.
"It's that cat and mouse game that we’ve been playing since the 50s in the narcotics war."
But Callery says the DEA is also adjusting its playbook.
“We are putting people in jail who’ve provided fentanyl to addicts, and we’re charging them with homicide because they knew they were giving them a drug that was very deadly," said Callery.
Created in 2018, the Narcotics Task Force Team 10 is a multi-agency team housed by DEA to address drug overdose deaths in San Diego. Agencies on Team 10 include DEA, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, California Department of Healthcare Services, and San Diego Police Department.
"That's non-traditional. That's not something DEA has done in the past," said Callery. "It’s something we’re doing here because the community needs it."