In this image provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration, agents work a scene. Courtesy DEA

In this image provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA agents conduct a raid out of its Atlanta bureau.

Credit: Drug Enforcement Administration

As fentanyl floods into the United States and deaths spike, federal agents tasked with stemming the tide of illicit drugs have noted a common thread:

“It’s pretty safe to say most of the drugs seized up and down the coast have come through Atlanta at one point, “ said Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Robert J. Murphy.

Previous reporting by the Ledger-Enquirer shows that an increase of fentanyl in Georgia has led to an exponential rise in overdose deaths. In 2021, there were almost 1,400 overdose deaths from fentanyl in the state.

Murphy said there are multiple factors that make Atlanta a good distribution hub for fentanyl, including its location on an extensive interstate system, the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and wealth.

“The interstate system is the No. 1 way [drugs are] being transported up and down the coast,” Murphy said, adding that once drugs reach Atlanta, they’re moved to the Northeast, Midwest and down to south Florida. “We’re seeing it everywhere. Unfortunately, we’re seeing it in colleges, seeing it in high schools.”

Murphy said cartels and other drug trafficking organizations are bringing fentanyl into Atlanta.

“There’s no maybe about it, that’s absolute. We have every major cartel operating. The two major ones we’re focused on right now are Sinaloa and CJNG (Cartel Jalisco New Generation),” said Murphy.

The Sinaloa Cartel has been connected to some of the most significant fentanyl busts by the DEA, including one in Arizona where more than 4.5 million fentanyl-laced pills were seized.

Murphy said CJNG is a splinter group of the Sinaloa Cartel and the two have been warring in Mexico over access to the U.S.

These two cartels are the most widespread operations in Atlanta, according to Murphy.

“All of [the fentanyl] is coming across the Mexican border whether it’s coming in trucks, cars, people walking across, mailing it,” Murphy said. “I mean it’s all coming across the border.”

The results have been deadly. 

Overdose deaths from fentanyl in surrounding counties of Atlanta have increased and have some of the higher totals in the state. Fulton County had over 150 fentanyl overdose deaths in 2021 followed by Cobb County at more than 100 deaths, and DeKalb County had over 80 deaths.

Mexican cartels have the precursor chemicals for fentanyl shipped from China into Mexico where they produce the fentanyl at low cost, according to Murphy, and smuggle it into the United States.

The U.S./Mexico border isn’t the only way the drug is getting into the country: People are using the U.S. Postal Service to smuggle fentanyl into the country, according to Murphy.

He said the enormity of the amount of mail the Post Office receives makes it difficult for them to check every package. In addition the drug is easily hideable due to its small size as pills or powder.

Why are dealers moving towards fentanyl?

“It’s pure profit… the cost is so minimal,” Murphy told the Ledger-Enquirer.

The transportation cost of other drugs such as cocaine and marijuana as well as unpredictability in the harvest of plant-based drugs makes fentanyl much more profitable, according to Murphy.

Drug dealers are also using fentanyl in order to sell smaller quantities and still maintain the effect their clientele want, according to Dr. Kavita Babu of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.


Potential solutions

What makes it so hard for law enforcement to stop this drug is the ease in which smugglers can hide the drug. Murphy said someone could hide it in a legitimate bottle and officers wouldn’t be able to tell.

Murphy said that people can help themselves by not experimenting with drugs due to the presence of fentanyl in the overall illicit drug supply.

“We have a saying in the DEA: ‘One pill can kill,’” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s true.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with the Ledger-Enquirer.

Tags: Drugs  fentanyl  Georgia  Crime  Atlanta