THE FENTANYL FALLOUT: Cartels Penetrate Wyoming Communities as Demand for Illicit Fentanyl Soars

Law enforcement: “Some people are overdosing more than cats with nine lives.”

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This is the second story in a series addressing the ongoing problem of fentanyl and other illicit drugs spreading throughout Wyoming communities. Check out the first story here.

NORTHEAST, Wyo.—Multiple state and federal law enforcement agencies are sounding the alarm as illicit opioids and other drugs laced with lethal fentanyl continue to pour into Wyoming communities as overdose deaths soar. 

Once the state’s biggest drug threat came from homegrown meth labs and local producers. But now illegal drugs, including fentanyl, are flooding across the southern border at a rate that has law enforcement agencies struggling to keep up. 

Data from the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) documented that the number of fentanyl arrests has more than doubled throughout the state in 2019 and 2020, the last year for which figures were publicly available, with arrests rising from 15 to 38. What’s more, Wyoming registered a 200% increase in the number of seized drugs containing fentanyl.

Intelligence from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) indicates the bulk of these illicit opioids and fentanyl-laced products are being smuggled across the border by cartels that process the drugs in clandestine and move them to Wyoming and elsewhere through a variety of channels, including major highways.  

One former drug dealer, who spoke exclusively to the Wyoming Truth on the condition of anonymity, fearing for his life, said he wants no part of his past life, which was independently corroborated through court records. He has seen its devastating impact. He said that after cartels move fentanyl into the country across the border with Mexico, it is distributed throughout the United States, including  both coasts.

The Drug Enforcement Agency has labeled fentanyl the deadliest drug threat facing the country and the most highly addictive synthetic opioid, which is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. (Courtesy photo from the Drug Enforcement Agency)

Much of it arrives in Wyoming directly through the mail, said the former drug dealer, who described shipments in the last year alone containing over 100,000 fentanyl pills in Ziploc bags. Liquid methamphetamine is being transported in hidden compartments in semi-truck tankers, as well as in vehicles, along the interstate roads, he said.

People would be surprised by the extent of the cartel drug trade in communities in Wyoming, the former dealer said. He said he wanted to share his story to highlight the extent of the problem.

He’s seen it firsthand, he said, including women being drafted into sex trafficking, which is happening now. In some cases, the women are groomed and unwittingly exploited, while in other cases, cartel members use their drug addictions as currency for sex, he said.

“It’s all about making money,” the former drug dealer told the Wyoming Truth. “There’s no heart in this.” 

The Wyoming Truth spoke to law enforcement in other parts of the state, including Det. Eric Small of the Gillette Police Department. Small said police have noticed a huge influx of fentanyl, particularly counterfeit opioid pills, and other drugs in the county and throughout northeastern Wyoming. Small also confirmed that there is cartel activity in Gillette and other parts of Wyoming, though he declined to provide additional details. 

“It’s coming in in such copious amounts,” Small said about fentanyl. “The amount that is in our communities is alarming.” 

In the past two years, fentanyl arrests have almost tripled from six in 2021 to 16 so far in 2022, according to Brent Wasson, Gillette deputy chief of police.

Small said buyers are trending younger, typically between the ages of 18 and 35. He attributes this to the ease of access to the drugs social media and the sheer volume of available drugs.

Small said price is a driving factor for the increased volume: $20 to $25 a pill compared to $35 just a couple years ago.

In the past, Small said many buyers had no idea they were consuming fentanyl when they purchased what they thought were prescription opioids. But now, Gillette police are seeing more people who seek out the highly addictive drug, which is becoming more potent.

The threat of overdosing on fentanyl is mitigated by the increased availability of Narcan, a naloxone nose spray or injectable, that can help reverse an opioid overdose by blocking its effects and restoring breathing within two to three minutes after a person’s breath has slowed or stopped.

With typical opioids, one Narcan dose is generally effective. But stronger opioids like fentanyl can require more than one dose, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.  As of 2022, a two-pack of Narcan can be purchased without a prescription in all states and most pharmacies for $120 to $140.

Law enforcement and first responders also carry Narcan; many users also keep it on hand to administer in the event of overdose. “Some people are overdosing more than cats with nine lives,” Small said.

The former drug dealer confirmed that he also witnessed more people seeking fentanyl, despite the inherent risks. “The majority knew what they were getting,” he said.

The DEA stated the pills are largely produced by two Mexican drug cartels – the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco (CJNG) Cartel. The pills are designed to look like brand-name prescription opioids, such as light blue OxyContin pills or brightly colored pills.

Last year, the DEA seized over 20 million fake pills nationwide; an additional 20 million more were seized this year.  

A 2020 DEA intelligence report suggested a shift in the actors supplying the cartels and others with illicit opioids and fentanyl.

Initially, China had been the primary source of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that were trafficked through international mail, the report stated. As of 2019, however, when China officially declared fentanyl a controlled class of drugs and began investigating cases of fentanyl trafficking, Indian nationals with ties to cartels stepped in to fill the void, according to the DEA.  

The DEA warned that the flow of fentanyl into the United States would likely continue to shift as pressure intensifies on countries to crack down on illicit drug operations.

What doesn’t change, regardless of where the drugs originate, according to Small, is the appetite for the dangerous substances in Wyoming and elsewhere that drives the trade and increasingly kills unwitting users. 

Said Small: “The sheer potency and the rate of deaths this substance is producing is staggering.”

In the past five years, 410 Wyoming residents died from drug overdoses, according to Wyoming Department of Health data, with about 63% of deaths ­involving prescription opioids. Between 2018 and 2021, the number of deaths from synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, more than quadrupled—a 320% increase. 

Lucrative market

Wyoming is a lucrative market because of the high profit margin, the former drug dealer said.

Where a synthetic opioid might be sold in Arizona, Texas or Colorado for $5 to $10 per pill, it can fetch twice that amount in Wyoming. The same pills go for even higher prices on Native American reservations, from between $40 and $60.

He  said he sold drugs face-to-face at parties, people’s houses and his apartment. He said much of his illicit business  came from word-of-mouth referrals from drug users.

The former drug dealer said he sold fentanyl, but only used it twice accidentally when he discovered his meth had been laced.

“Fentanyl is far worse than meth,” he said. “Without the drug, you can’t function.”

He quit selling fentanyl after he saw its devastating impact on users and out of a concern that he would be robbed and killed by other drug dealers.

“It happens more than you might think,” he said. “Drug dealers ripping off other drug dealers. I’m surprised more people don’t get killed.”

He’s back to a life of manual labor and is content to work hard for a fraction of the money he made dealing drugs. 

“It’s a hell of a life,” the former drug dealer said, with his hands clasped between his knees. “I look at people going down the path I went down and want to tell them to run and get the hell away.”

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