Why is fentanyl so common in New Mexico?

Note: Warning, some of the videos in this story are disturbing.

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – New Mexico has a new drug of choice that is causing problems the state has never seen before. Why is fentanyl so common in New Mexico?

KRQE investigations have highlighted some of the challenges our state faces, particularly around the effects of fentanyl. “I would consider it poison,” said Albuquerque Police Lieutenant Ryan Nelson.


The latest from KRQE investigations

“We have ODs all the time,” Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage said. “This is gross and should never happen.”

But more often law enforcement responds to calls involving fentanyl. Police lapel video last year caught officers charging into a backyard in Carlsbad. “Where is the child?” asked an officer as he ran into a family’s backyard in Carlsbad. “Here, brother. Right here!” A man called back.

The officer found a 12-year-old boy dying in his family’s shed. “CPR has begun. Come on mate, come on mate!” Officers and first responders are caught on video, desperately trying to save the boy’s life.

The boy’s mother told police she knew he overdosed. “I could smell that he had smoked fentanyl,” Alexis Smith told police. Police say 12-year-old Brent Sullivan died of this fentanyl overdose.

The officer who tried to save him is incredulous. “Just give me a minute,” the stunned officer said to his superior. “He’s just a damn kid.”

The investigators learn what happened from the boy’s grandmother. “Ma’am, this is all important information,” a detective told Kelli Smith, Sullivan’s grandmother. “Fentanyl. He was on fentanyl,” she said.

Smith held down one of her young grandchildren while speaking to police. The shock turned to anger as they heard more.

How did a 12-year-old boy overdose on fentanyl?

“I’m trying to figure out what’s going on,” the detective told Smith. “We have a 12-year-old boy who is dead.”

“His mother is a drug addict,” Smith said. “He stole some pills from his mom yesterday.” When asked how long the 12-year-old has been using fentanyl, Smith replied, “He’s tired. This is the fourth time he’s fed up.”

Brent Sullivan’s mother, Alexis Smith, and his grandma, Kelli Smith, went to prison on fatal child molestation charges for creating this dangerous situation. Both are still in custody.

Brent Sullivan died of a fentanyl overdose, according to Carlsbad police.

Brent Sullivan’s story is being shared by law enforcement to warn parents and communities about the dangers of fentanyl. Investigators say his family knew there was a problem and didn’t seek help until it was too late.

“We’re fed up. We are fed up with our citizens dying and being killed by this poison. We’re fed up with the violent crime that goes with it. We’ve had enough!” Mark Cage, an avid Eddy County sheriff, vowed earlier this year that law enforcement across the state was taking it up a notch.

During the three-month “Operation Blue Crush” this year, federal agencies worked with local authorities to seize 119 pounds of fentanyl and make hundreds of arrests.

“We have to do this. We need to get the word out,” Greg Millard said during a news conference in June along with local and federal authorities. Millard is the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) for the El Paso Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Three months after that announcement, the FBI in Albuquerque made its largest fentanyl arrest in FBI history, acquiring more than a million fentanyl pills. “That’s enough fentanyl to have killed thousands of people,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a video the agency posted on YouTube.

“I’ve spent most of my career working in the drug industry,” said Lt. Ryan Nelson. Lt. Nelson is with the Albuquerque Police Department Drugs Unit.

“We have four detectives and one sergeant,” Nelson said. When asked if he thinks that’s enough to address the issue, Lt. Nelson: “No, I don’t think it’s enough.”

His team regularly confiscates thousands of pills, he explained. Local cases that can be prosecuted at the federal level are overwhelming.

Where does fentanyl come from?

“You come across these types of drugs fairly frequently,” Nelson explained. In APD’s drug evidence vault, across from shelves of confiscated marijuana from old cases, are containers full of opioids.

Illicit fentanyl looks like real oxycontin pain relievers. But a single two-milligram pill, 100 times stronger than morphine, highly addictive and cheap, can be deadly.

“You see, for example, a large amount of marijuana, a huge block of cocaine, meth or heroin,” explained Carlos Briano of the El Paso DEA division. “But 1000 fentanyl pills fit in the palm of your hand. Smuggling is much easier.”

DEA and Homeland Security agents told KRQE News 13 most of it came from Mexican drug cartels crossing the border. “So they’re an addiction to driving and that turns into profits,” Briano said.

“If it kills 108,000 Americans, it doesn’t matter. That’s just the cost of doing business for the cartels,” added Briano.

Social media has also changed the game for drug dealers. You used to have to know someone to buy drugs. Now online platforms are giving traders a degree of anonymity, which investigators say is even more dangerous.

“Both sides come armed to a deal and it ends as badly as you think,” Lt. Nelson. “We get a lot of shootings, a lot of killings because of internet sales.”

APD now has detectives using social media for undercover purchases. And platforms like Snapchat have disabled accounts promoting blue pill images.

But for every big bust, there are countless deals that go undetected. and Lt. Nelson worries that young people may find taking pills or smoking fentanyl less risky than experimenting with other drugs.

“Kid was 12 years old, Jim,” the first officer who got to the scene first, told a detective. “Yes, I know. Fentanyl,” the detective sighed.

“An experiment could end the game,” said Briano. “Don’t get tired of having those conversations with your loved ones.”

Kelli Smith, Sullivan’s grandmother, was in trouble before and was arrested for dealing heroin. She and her daughter Alexis are due to face child abuse charges next year.

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