EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – According to the DEA, there has been a 524% increase in the amount of fentanyl seized at the southern border.
The latest trend being used by Drug Cartels to push the drug is pressing the powder form of Fentanyl into fake prescription pills. However, the makeshift labs they use to make the pills can be a deadly place and require a special team of DEA agents to deconstruct it.
In a 9 News exclusive KTSM was allowed access to special agents and the equipment they use when they are called to take down a drug lab in the field.
According to Carlos Briano, who is the Public Information Officer for the DEA El Paso, the teams are called Clandestine Lab Response teams,
“This programs been around since the 1990’s but it has evolved from being used on meth labs to Fentanyl labs. It’s become more sophisticated and used on mega labs like we have found in Chihuahua.”
Briano said that with just $5,000 in Fentanyl powder Cartels can make as much as $1.5 million.
Special agents use a special suit that is impermeable, along with an air tight mask, oxygen tank and rubber boots when they infiltrate a clandestine drug lab.
KTSM’s Christina Aguayo went through the process of putting the suit on and attempting to sort fake Fentanyl pills.
Something Briano pointed out was a daunting task saying, “So, Ms. Aguayo this is what our actual agents would have to don if they had to respond to a clandestine lab situation. So as you can see it’s quite an ordeal to protect themselves.”
Briano said that Fentanyl in powder form or the residue left on pill pressing machines can be inhaled and easily cause an agent to overdose if they’re not protected. So agents must wear the suit, while working to deconstruct the lab.
According to special agents, the suit is time consuming to take off so the agent wearing the suit keeps a knife on his/her body in the case that they run out of air. The agent will then slide their arm out of the suit sleeve, in towards their body, grab the knife and slice through the suit. Then they can take the mask off and get fresh air.
Briano said each agent usually spends about 45 minutes in the suit before running out of oxygen, Aguayo used up 33% of her oxygen in just five minutes.
“She consumed about a third of her air because she was working hard, exerting herself and she is not used to using that device,” Briano said, “at the pace she was going she would only have lasted about 15 minutes.”
In addition, Briano said that agents have to exit the suit sooner because they have to be decontaminated.
“Everything that’s on you has to be contained in a pool because we don’t want that dangerous material released into the air or environment.”
“You also have to remember that this is a dangerous situation,” Briano said, “Because there is a criminal element involved so agents have to be precautious in their law enforcement detail and at the same time they have to be aware of criminal environment.”
Agents swab the substances they find in the labs and run in through a device that can detect trace amounts of drugs and explosives. They then send it to a laboratory to confirm those results and proceed with prosecution.
According to the DEA in the 12 month period ending in January of 2021, 279 kilograms of Fentanyl was seized which is enough to potentially kill 139 million people.