Joint effort targets Mexican suppliers

By David Heinzmann and Jeff Coen
Tribune staff reporters
Published June 16, 2006

At the end of a two-day conference on the painkiller fentanyl, police and federal drug investigators said they are better informed about the growing crisis and are aggressively working to cut off the Mexican supply of the drug, which has tainted the U.S. heroin market and killed hundreds of people.

Chicago police and Drug Enforcement Administration officials held the summit in the DEA's office here Wednesday and Thursday in order to bring together investigators, scientists and public health officials working on the problem around the country.

Officials are calling the emerging fentanyl problem a crisis that has become larger than they anticipated, and they felt a need to raise awareness and understanding, as well as coordinate their work pursuing the traffickers pushing the drug to heroin users.

"We fully intend to engage in a coordinated effort to identify people who are engaged in manufacturing fentanyl illegally and clandestinely, and we're going to aggressively pursue them," said Tim Ogden, associate special agent in charge of the DEA's Chicago field office.

Police and DEA agents attended from Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Diego and Los Angeles and several other cities. More than 125 people attended the conference, and organizers said the turnout demonstrates the urgency of the problem.

"Law enforcement officials talk on a regular basis, but this conference has added another dimension to the communication process," Chicago Police Supt. Philip Cline said. "We have developed a network of law enforcement agencies, health officials, EMS agencies, and chemists to share knowledge and information when a crisis of crime hits, like it has here."

Of the 64 people who have died in fentanyl-related overdoses in Cook County over the last year, 20 had pure fentanyl in their bodies, said Frank Limon, chief of the Chicago Police Department's organized crime division. The others had fentanyl mixed with heroin or other drugs.

In addition to chasing the drug traffickers, leaders said, they plan to push a public awareness campaign that would include outreach to drug prevention professionals.

"We're going to collaborate in a similar event with the treatment and prevention people. We're very concerned about this threat, and we're actively and aggressively pursuing it," Ogden said.

In Chicago, police have arrested more than 100 street-level drug dealers in hopes to develop information about the wholesale suppliers. Investigators are also trying to determine whether the drug is being produced by more than one lab in Mexico. Federal investigators are currently testing seized samples of fentanyl to see whether they were produced at a Mexican lab that Mexican and U.S. investigators shut down recently.