4 Investigates: New Mexico’s fentanyl front line

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Mike Vigil, the former chief of International Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, grew up in Española, the epitome of northern New Mexico living.

“When I was a small kid growing up there, it was kind of like the Mayberry of New Mexico,” Vigil said. “No crime. I mean, you’d probably get excommunicated by the church for smoking a cigarette on school grounds. And then now we see a huge drug problem in Española.”

However, seeing the struggles in his hometown led him to a decades-long career with the DEA. Vigil is retired now, but one never really gets out of the business – especially when it’s ripping apart your home.

“Drug addicts stand a better chance of survival playing Russian roulette than they do using fentanyl, because six of the ten pills that are found here – counterfeit pills that have fentanyl – are deadly,” Vigil said.

Fentanyl is a hundred times more potent than morphine and fifty times more potent than heroin. According to the CDC, 50 people died from overdoses from June 2021 to June 2022 in Rio Arriba County – New Mexico’s worst death rate.

“I have never seen the crises as we’ve seen it now,” Vigil said.

In just one week this April, Los Alamos had six fentanyl overdoses – four of those deadly. One of every three felony arrests this year involved fentanyl.

So what makes fentanyl so different from what we’ve battled before?

Vigil said the cartels see those small towns as untapped territories with vulnerable customers and less competition. Fentanyl is much more accessible to New Mexicans battling poverty because it’s cheap to make and buy.

But now, there’s a new threat with fentanyl. It’s called “tranq,” the street name for xylazine, an FDA-approved horse tranquilizer.

Vigil said the cartels are lacing fentanyl and other drugs with xylazine, making highs more intense for longer. The consequences are far worse.

“They call it a zombie drug because it causes flesh wounds, necrosis if you will, which causes rotting of human flesh, and that leads to amputations,” Vigil said. “So this is another deadly cocktail that we’re starting to see throughout the United States, and it doesn’t react to Narcan or naloxone.”

In Rio Arriba County, Maj. Lorenzo Aguilar – who has been with the sheriff’s department for 13 years – says he has never seen anything like the fentanyl crisis.

“I was speaking with the clerk at a gas station in Chama, where people just walk in, transients just walk into the local businesses, which happens to be a Speedway, and they go in to use the restroom,” Aguilar said. “All of a sudden, there’s smoke coming out of the restroom.”

“At one point, the clerk said, I kicked the person out who was in the restroom for 30 minutes. I walked in and I’m faced with a cloud of smoke. So she overdosed,” Aguilar said. “They had to call a medic to actually get her help because she has to get transported to the hospital because she overdosed in doing her job.”

Aguilar pulled the data for the county. Most of the fentanyl overdose deaths were in the small towns of Hernandez and Alcalde. What he also found in those towns were the most property crimes.

“We had Good Friday, an event that we traditionally have throughout the state of New Mexico, especially for Chimayó. And a lot of people don’t want to participate because they don’t want to participate in those traditions, knowing that nobody’s at home, nobody’s there to watch our home because we’re afraid to be broken into,” Aguilar said.

So what are New Mexico leaders doing to fight back?

That’s what we’ll explore in our second report from New Mexico’s fentanyl front line – tune in Monday night at 10 p.m. on the Nightbeat.