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Fentanyl laced Mexican pills leave trail of deaths in US

World | Feb 15, 2019 20:17
Aaron Francisco Chavez swallowed at least one of the sky blue pills at a Halloween party before falling asleep forever. He became yet another victim killed by a flood of illicit fentanyl smuggled from Mexico by the Sinaloa cartel into the Southwest — a profitable new business for the drug gang that has made the synthetic opioid responsible for the most fatal overdoses in the U.S.
Three others at the party in Tucson also took the pills nicknamed "Mexican oxy.” They were saved after partygoers flagged down police who administered naloxone overdose reversal medication. The treatment came too late for the 19-year-old Chavez.
The pills vary widely in strength, from a tiny amount to enough to cause lethal overdoses. Law enforcement officials say they have become a lucrative new product for the cartel, despite the conviction this week of Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo” Guzman Loera in New York.
The four Tucson partiers thought they were taking oxycodone, a much less powerful opioid, investigators believe. The death of Chavez and many others, officials said, illustrate how Arizona and other southwestern states bordering Mexico have become a hot spot in the nation’s fentanyl crisis. Fentanyl deaths tripled in Arizona from 2015 through 2017.
"It’s the worst I’ve seen in 30 years, this toll that it’s taken on families,” said Doug Coleman, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge of Arizona. "The crack (cocaine) crisis was not as bad.”
With plenty of pills and powder sold locally from the arriving fentanyl shipments that are also distributed around the U.S., the drug that has surpassed heroin for overdose deaths has touched all Arizona demographic groups. Chavez’ relatives say he was working as a restaurant prep cook with dreams of becoming a chef and trying to turn his life around after serving prison time for a robbery conviction.
The pills that sell for US$9 to US$30 each also took the lives of a 17-year-old star high school baseball pitcher from a Phoenix suburb and a pair of 19-year-old best friends and prominent former high school athletes from Arizona’s mountain town of Prescott Valley. The parents of one, Gunner Bundrick, said their son’s death left "a hole in our hearts.”
Popping the pills at parties "is a lot more widespread than we know,” said Yavapai County Sheriff’s Lt. Nate Auvenshine. "There’s less stigma to taking a pill than putting a needle in your arm, but one of these pills can have enough fentanyl for three people.”
Stamped with "M″on one side and "30” on the other to make them look like legitimate oxycodone, the pills started showing up in Arizona in recent years as the Sinaloa cartel’s newest drug product, said Tucson Police Lt. Christian Wildblood.
The fentanyl that killed Chavez was among 1,000 pills sneaked across the border crossing last year in Nogales, Arizona by a woman who was paid $200 to tote them and gave two to Chavez at the party, according to court documents. It’s unknown if he took one or both.-AP





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