It was a cold and windy Sunday the week before Christmas, and dozens of semi-trucks barreled past the “Welcome to New Jersey” sign on a stretch of highway in the western edge of the state and toward the nation’s biggest metropolis. One particular big rig that zoomed by was being patiently tracked by federal agents, who started to quietly follow the haul.
Their latest hunt was about to come to a close.
Investigators didn’t care what the 18-wheeler officially listed on the lading bill -- often lettuce, avocadoes, or some other produce from Southern California. They were focused on the secret load: 29 kilograms of powdered bricks and a bag of nearly 30,000 pills -- all fentanyl. And there was enough of this illegal supply to kill millions of people through accidental opioid overdoses.
Law enforcement would later identify the truck drivers as Mario Alberto Ramos and Carlos Alberto Ramirez, who made their way to Kearny, a Jersey suburb just outside of New York City. Investigators observed as they pulled into the parking lot of a Walmart Supercenter where the One World Trade Center tower is just barely out of sight.
What happened next is described in a Drug Enforcement Administration agent’s sworn affidavit reviewed by Univision 41 Investiga.
When an SUV pulled up, Ramirez allegedly handed the other man a red bag filled with drugs. Then a pickup truck parked nearby, and Ramos slipped into the smaller vehicle to deliver a gray bag purportedly filled with pills. All four were arrested, and agents seized $100,000 in cash in the big rig.
So ended the semi-truck’s two-day journey from California, where it followed an illegal drug shipping route that has become the number one way for the Sinaloa drug cartel to sneak fentanyl into New York City.
For years, the DEA has been using phone wiretaps and GPS homing beacons to battle what is becoming the most lucrative business in the drug trade. Federal court documents reviewed by Univision 41 Investiga detail dozens of operations, providing a glimpse into the latest chapter of the war on drugs. The picture that emerges is one in which a primary method of distribution -- direct mail shipments of purer fentanyl from China -- has been overtaken by highway freight of fentanyl riddled with impurities from Mexico.
“It's what keeps me up at night,” said Ray Donovan, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s New York division. “There's 300,000 trucks on the road at any given moment, and being able to zero in on them, find them, locate them, track them down... that's always a challenge for us.”
According to court documents, the answer is often electronic surveillance or tips from well-placed informants inside cartels. Donovan’s trajectory up the ranks of DEA seems to position him uniquely for overcoming that obstacle. In his previous role, he was the section chief of the DEA’s Special Operations Division, a highly secretive unit at the agency that is tasked with sharing extremely sensitive intelligence about narco-terrorist organizations. Donovan was the head of SOD when he directed the manhunt that caught Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the most powerful drug trafficker in history. (The previous leader of the Sinaloa cartel is now serving a lifetime sentence at the most highly secure U.S. prison.)
New York City remains the hub for heroin and fentanyl distribution in the northeast, Donovan explained during a sitdown interview last month. The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, which have the most established presence in the city, find ample opportunity because so many trucks end their deliveries at the Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx, a 113-acre zone that claims to be the largest wholesale produce market in the world.
“They can't just drive an empty tractor-trailer across the country. They have to put a cover load. And here's produce from Southern California coming directly into the Bronx,” Donovan said. “Even if they're stopped by state police... there's tons of some other product on this truck, and police may not have the capacity to take everything off to look for drugs within the trailer.”
Once the Mexican product arrives, it often gets picked up by Dominican drug dealers in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. But mortality statistics show that copious amounts of fentanyl still make their way to Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. In all, 868 people died of a fentanyl overdose in New York City in 2018, roughly half of the unintentional drug poisoning deaths recorded by the city’s health department.
As laid out in court documents and our interviews with investigators, the illegal fentanyl business starts in China -- hence the common street name, “China White.” Large laboratories filled with trained chemists produce the precursor chemicals -- think of them as ingredients -- that make up the drug, including 4-anilino-N-phenethyl-4-piperidine (4-ANPP) and N-Phenethyl-4-piperidinone (NPP). Those chemicals are shipped to cartel-run labs in Mexico, where they are processed into fentanyl.
The drug gets separated into one-kilogram packages, and cartel members stuff five or so into a single car -- then “shotgun” a dozen or more stuffed vehicles across the border. Success is almost guaranteed for the drug traffickers. Packages leaving Tijuana for San Diego pass through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which the U.S. government considers the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. A few dozen cars with fentanyl hidden in their axles easily disappear amongst the 70,000 passenger vehicles heading north every day. And to the cartels, it doesn't matter if a few get caught on the way in.
“They anticipate losing several of those cars. It's part of the business model,” Donovan said.
The cartel then brings together disparate shipments at a safe house, typically near the U.S. side of the border. Sinaloa, for example, is known to move it north to Los Angeles where it has a “stronghold.” Cartel members find a legitimate company’s truck driver who’s willing to take the risk, and the fentanyl packages are slipped into the cargo, hidden in an axle, or placed in the driver’s cabin.
“They'll get a cover load -- produce or whatever the next trip is headed for New Jersey or New York -- and then they'll either conceal it within a tractor trailer in a trap or they'll just put it within the goods itself,” Donovan said.
Sometimes, the shipments are closely tracked and caught early. On a Friday in February last year, the DEA in Chicago intercepted a load as it made its way through Chicago toward the Bronx. Investigators zeroed in on a tractor-trailer that was hauling cars, where they found 23 kg of fentanyl that was sourced to the Sinaloa cartel, according to the DEA. Had the drug followed its intended route, it would have likely ended up being stamped with the local brand name “PRICELESS” and sold to addicts at the William McKinley Houses in the Bronx, where this particular investigation had begun nearly two years earlier.
At other times, shipments are caught almost by sheer luck. A local Pittsburgh narcotics cop was on predawn DEA task force duty in rural Pennsylvania in 2018 when he spotted a car that parked near a tractor-trailer at a gas station, according to his sworn affidavit of the incident. It seemed suspicious, so Officer Dominic Falascino called it in. When Pennsylvania State Police pulled over the Kia, they claimed to have found 55 kg of crystal methamphetamine and 5 kg of cocaine. Later that same day, the tractor-trailer was stopped in New Jersey. One of the two men in the truck, Joselito Colindres, later pleaded guilty to being “a minimal participant” in transporting 10 kg of heroin and 4 kg of fentanyl.
Most of the DEA operations reviewed by Univision 41 Investiga involved busting truck drop-offs at the end of the 2,800-mile journey east. The ultimate destination is New York City, but truckers will often stop at points all over New Jersey to avoid scrutiny. A particular favorite is the Vince Lombardi Park & Ride and Travel Plaza, a busy commuter zone and highway rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike.
Examples abound. In March 2019, DEA agents who had targeted a truck inbound from California waited until they had observed a drug delivery at a rest stop in Bloomsbury, New Jersey before moving in for the arrests. Agents claimed to have found 13 kg of fentanyl in Luis Aponte’s truck cabin refrigerator. ( He later pleaded guilty to transporting fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine.)
Major transport companies are generally believed to be in the dark about so-called dirty drivers.
“But the small mom-and-pop companies? They know,” Donovan said.
At the smaller outfits, dispatchers are constantly in contact with their drivers as they make their way to each weigh station across the country. If a driver is even a few minutes late, they’ll get a call. If they go missing, something is up.
There are times when a small trucking company gets unwittingly caught up in the fentanyl trade. George Sukkarieh said he was shocked three years ago when he got the phone call telling him two of his trucks were seized by law enforcement. He was furious to learn that a pair of drivers, David Arzu and Edgar Alvarez, were arrested for transporting fentanyl. It cost him nearly $70,000 to get his impounded tractor-trailers back -- not counting lost business for his tiny firm, which operates in a nicotine-tinged, second-floor office in Staten Island.
Those two drivers, later convicted in New York State court, were low-level members of a local drug distribution network -- the last phase of the fentanyl delivery line.
According to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, the drivers delivered shipments for a drug trafficking organization that produced its fentanyl in Honduras. The head of the local operation was Jason Alvarez, a Dominican who kept in close contact with a yet-unidentified boss in Mexico. His case also shows just how closely Chinese entities are involved in the fentanyl business. Alvarez spent three weeks in China in late 2016 with his girlfriend at a pricey Four Seasons hotel, according to investigators who presume he was establishing direct contacts with fentanyl producers there. This reporter was the only member of the public present in the Bronx courtroom last month when prosecutor Christine Scaccia revealed details about the trip. He pleaded guilty on February 4, on the condition he would only receive a 10-year sentence for a crime that could have landed him decades in an upstate prison.
In court through his defense attorney, he successfully petitioned the judge to bar Univision 41 Investiga from taking his picture out of fear that it would provoke retaliation. Bronx Supreme Court Justice James McCarty was told that the last time Alvarez’s picture ran in the paper, unknown attackers broke into his mother’s Connecticut home, where they tied her up and threatened her.
When fentanyl reaches local organizations like these in New York, it typically comes in two forms. Some of it is kept in powder, so that local drug dealers can “cut” it into other drugs like cocaine or heroin -- boosting a high and making clients more addicted. Users never truly know what’s in their drugs, increasing the danger of overdosing when fentanyl is quietly mixed in. Health experts frequently note that a person can have a fatal overdose with just 2 milligrams of fentanyl. Roughly the equivalent of four grains of sugar, that infinitesimally small amount is enough to flood a person’s brain stem, latching onto their vulnerable opioid receptors and tricking their body into slowing down the rate and depth of breathing until they die.
That potency is at the heart of fentanyl’s lethality. Minor changes can bring devastating consequences, and users never know how much is in a dose. When a small town Connecticut patrol officer working off a DEA informant’s tip stopped a truck on the state’s Route 34 a few days before Christmas in 2016, he found 25 vacuum-sealed bags of powder that was 8% fentanyl -- roughly twice the strength normally seen on the street.
But in recent months, federal agents are increasingly seeing a second form of fentanyl: pills that are deliberately mislabeled as 30-milligram tablets of Oxycodone, Xanax, or Vicodin.
With so many people in the United States addicted to prescription painkillers -- but not necessarily willing to experiment with injectables like heroin -- cartels stand to gain immensely by selling pills that appear legitimate.
“They want to broaden their client base,” Donovan told us. “But this is more dangerous. They're fooling the customers, who often will think this looks like it came out of a laboratory... with some kind of quality control."
Last February, informants in the Bronx alerted the FBI when a local dealer began hawking tiny blue fentanyl pills labeled “Oxy 30,” according to an FBI agent’s sworn testimony. The drug dealer referred to them as “botones,” Spanish for “buttons.” The informants bought more than 3,000 fentanyl-laced pills over several months from a local dealer and his partner, who both claimed to be affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel. One of them, Ruben “Venegas” Amado, was arrested during a sting operation on November 22 just north of Claremont Park in the Bronx. When police neared the car where Amado was allegedly making a deal, Amado darted off into the twilight, according to the FBI agent’s account. Amado only made it half a block away, running on pavement still wet from the afternoon’s rain shower, before he was caught.
A few hours later, armed with a search warrant approved by a U.S. magistrate judge in Manhattan, agents searched Amado’s apartment and claimed to have found methamphetamine, fentanyl pills, and ziplock bags of fentanyl powder.
It’s generally recognized that America’s addiction to painkillers has created a huge market for this laboratory drug. But drug dealers find it especially attractive, because they’re also able to reap a bigger profit. The tiniest bit of fentanyl gives a more powerful high, and its synthetic nature makes it easier to produce in large quantities. Investigators have grown accustomed to seizing $100,000 or more in a single bust of only a few kilos.
“It’s an extremely lucrative business,” said Andres Torres, an assistant district attorney at the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York. “And the price can increase dramatically when it’s sold on the street. It’s a business that generates millions and millions of dollars.”
According to investigators, cartel deliveries are able to sell a kilogram brick of fentanyl for anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000 a pop. But on the street, that kilogram can yield up to $16 million of finished product for local drug dealers. A one-time use amount of fentanyl -- typically sold in smooth, glossy bags called “glassines” -- goes for anywhere from $8 to $30, according to investigators. Each fake Oxycodone pill goes for about the same.
To differentiate themselves, local dealers stamp glassines with memorable names like, “Lethal Weapon,” “Trigger Happy,” and “Pray for Death.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the DEA in New York has seen a stiff dropoff in the amount of fentanyl it seized in 2019 -- only half of the 600 kg it caught the previous year. But Donovan isn’t celebrating, because there’s nothing to indicate that fentanyl deliveries have actually decreased. The street price remains relatively steady, and the demand for illegal opioids has only risen. For example, the DEA here seized the same amount of heroin -- roughly one metric ton -- in 2018 and 2019, he said.
A more telling statistic, from the city’s health department, is that the number of fatal fentanyl overdoses actually nudged up 4% between 2017 and 2018, according to the most recent data available. The hardest hit was the Bronx, where the number of deaths rose from 200 to 255. But fentanyl is killing more people in all five boroughs than it did just a few years ago.
"Our city, our state, our county is afflicted by an overwhelming opioid epidemic," said Bridget G. Brennan, who has led the city’s special narcotics prosecutor since 1998. She said she has directed her prosecutors to focus on "targeting people who are selling the drugs that are killing people."
Her office, which oversees Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, is decorated with commemorative tokens from partners at law enforcement agencies from around the world. They harken back to a time when the city’s chief drug concerns were crack cocaine, and later MDMA. But fentanyl presents an entirely different challenge. There’s never been a drug this lethal slipped into so many other illicit narcotics. Users are willingly flirting with death, and some sellers actually think the occasional fatal overdose brings their stamped brand name recognition.
Univision 41 Investiga was in court this past December, when one of Brennan’s prosecutors argued that an alleged Upper Manhattan drug dealer, Jose “Cataño” Jorge, should be kept in jail until his trial in part because of his callousness. Cops claim to have secretly recorded him describing in detail how he liked to mix fentanyl into heroin -- and laughing off the news that he caused someone’s death.
“He… explained that overdoses are actually good for business because then everyone wants what he is selling,” said a letter submitted to the court by Nancy Frigo, an assistant district attorney.
The investigation that jailed Cataño started when a customer died of an overdose at an Upper East Side diner. His dealer also died, according to prosecutors. Investigators ended up arresting the accused dealer’s father, Edward Wagner, a former NYPD cop who allegedly worked with Cataño and half a dozen other dealers. One of them, Jose Feliciano, pleaded guilty last month and started his four-year sentence at an upstate prison. The others were released under the new bail reform law as they await possible trial -- something that concerns Brennan, who worries they’ll go right back to supplying addicts who know the risks but do it anyway.
"They want to get as close to death without actually dying," Brennan said.