In the dark hours before dawn, there’s no busier place than the Hunts Point produce market in The Bronx, where throngs of chefs, grocers and deli owners jockey each morning to snag the plumpest peaches and leafiest lettuce.
But the bazaar, which handles as many as 30 million pounds of goods per day and is the largest produce outlet in the nation, also provides perfect cover for the importing of fentanyl, America’s deadliest drug, which smugglers sneak into New York amid boxes of fruits and vegetables, according law-enforcement officials.
Once fentanyl reaches the market, traffickers move it to nearby apartments where the drug gets chopped up and packaged into small glassine envelopes. The drugs are then sold on the streets of the city — and up and down the East Coast.
“It comes in with the produce,” said Bridget Brennan, who heads the city’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, noting that densely packed fentanyl bricks, hidden in box trucks and 18-wheelers, travel by highways from the border with Mexico to the Great Lakes region before coming east.
“The drugs are offloaded in New Jersey and then into The Bronx, where they are milled into glassines. The mills pump out millions of these glassines and they get distributed all over the country.”
Packaging operations inside apartments close to Hunts Point are staffed mostly by Dominican laborers decked out in full face masks, gloves and protective clothing to prevent them from being poisoned by the powerful narcotic, Brennan said.
“It tends to be an apartment in The Bronx with eight guys sitting around a big table working around the clock.”
They produce powder versions of the drug and press it into pills that look just like oxycodone, she said.
The fake oxy tablets are known as “blues” — 30 milligram pills so potent they are typically cut into halves or quarters, Brennan said. The amount of the drug can range from .02 to 5.1 milligrams, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. While the agency says a dose as small as two milligrams can be enough to induce a fatal overdose, 42 percent of the pills the DEA tested had that much or more.
Oxy users, said Brennan, “think they know what they’re getting because they’re used to purchasing pills online. But sometimes it’s pure fentanyl.”
Hunts Point spokesman Robert Leonard said the market was “highly regulated by a number of city, state and federal agencies — including on-site presences. … Our market is committed to providing over 4,000 workers and thousands of customers who come into our market daily with a safe and law-abiding environment. …This includes cooperating fully with all levels of law enforcement.”
Fentanyl, which is manufactured by the cartels in Mexico, has become a plague in America amid the current border crisis, sources said.
A group of border guards in Texas blasted President Biden last week for not stopping the rampant flow of the dangerous drug into the Lone Star State, with one lawman saying Biden’s inaction has created a “tsunami of death.”
“It’s quite frankly a tsunami of death that is crashing into the United States over our southern border,” Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner told The Post of the thousands of pounds of the drug smuggled into the US.
Cartels are taking advantage of the wave of migrants surging over the border, experts said.
“Ninety percent of our resources are tied up processing immigrants,” said Brandon Judd, president of the national Border Patrol union. “The cartels exploit that border patrol agents are tied up. That means the border is wide open for them.”
Since 1999, when fentanyl emerged as a popular alternative to heroin, nearly one million Americans have lost their lives to the drug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths from fentanyl were six times greater in 2020 than in 2015, skyrocking to 56,516 from less than 10,000, according to the CDC.
The production of fentanyl begins in China, where a network of underground labs batch up “precursor” chemicals needed to manufacture the drug. Those include the two most common ingredients of fentanyl: N-phenethylpiperidone and 4-anilino-N-phenethylpiperidine.
The US and China have both banned these and other components, but they continue to be made. In 2020, a reporter for NPR identified three suspected suppliers — in Shanghai and two provinces: Ningxia, in the north central mountains, and Hebei, near Beijing.
The compounds are then shipped to Mexico, where two notorious cartels — the Sinaloa gang in Culiacan, and the Jalisco New Generation cartel in Guadalajara — produce the bulk of the fentanyl consumed in the US, according to the DEA.
The drugs are smuggled over the border at crossings in Texas and New Mexico, according to Brennan, then trucked north on highway 25 toward Denver before heading east toward Chicago on Interstate 80.
Though some shipments get seized, many more get through, in part because drug-sniffing dogs, who are capable of detecting opioids, have not been trained to identify fentanyl — for their own safety. The drug can be absorbed through the mucus membranes in dog’s noses, killing them just by getting too close to it.
Rand Henderson, the sheriff of Montgomery County, a suburb of Houston that’s been hit hard by fentanyl overdoses, said the smaller sizes of fentanyl bundles make it difficult to stop the trafficking.
“It’s not like moving bundles of marijuana,” he said. “These are much smaller bricks that are measured in pounds.”
Illegal fentanyl use in the US surged starting in 2015. Before then, in the early days of fentanyl, recreational users were mostly anesthesiologists who sedated surgery patients with the drug.
The drug took off because it was cheaper than heroin and became much more readily available, experts say. Even now, a single dose of fentanyl can cost as little as $2.
“It’s absolutely cheaper,” Henderson said. “Think about making something in a lab using these cheap chemicals. You have a room that it can be made in versus an organic product that you have to grow, like poppies, so you need a field, workers, water. You have to harvest it and package it. You don’t have any of that with fentanyl.”
It’s also much more profitable for dealers. According to one DEA estimate a kilo of fentanyl costing about $4,000 wholesale could reap as much as $1.2 million in revenue — whereas $4,000 of wholesale heroin might bring in just $60,000. More than one million pills can be made from a single kilo of raw fentanyl.
And experts said New York City has become a center for fentanyl distribution — not just because of its excellent connection to roadways — but because of recent bail reforms.
The change in bail requirements, which went into effect in January 2020 under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, mandated that non-violent and low-level drug offenders, including those accused of possession, were to be freed without cash bail.
One notorious Bronx pusher, José “Cataño” Jorge, who was charged with knowingly supplying a lethal dose of fentanyl to a 28-year-old man, got sprung in 2019 because the state’s bail reform law was about to take effect. He was facing 96 years in jail if convicted on all the charges, including conspiracy and selling a controlled substance, but after being released he failed to return to court.
Moments after his release, the 47-year-old infamously crowed, “Cuomo for president!”
Brennan’s office also recorded him on a wire saying fentanyl overdoses were “good for business,” because they prove the potency of his product. (Some dealers even stamp their products with morbid names like “Overdose” and “Game of Death,” Brennan said.) Jorge was ultimately arrested and is now serving a nine-year sentence, for criminal sale of a controlled substance, at Auburn state prison.
Brennan said she remains baffled as to the “massive overcorrection” on bail, which was partly meant to lower the state’s prison populations. “No prosecutors were consulted,” she said. “No judges were consulted.”
Brennan’s office has found that 78 percent of the overdose deaths in New York are linked to fentanyl. In the first two quarters of last year, 1,233 people in the city died of an OD, according to the NYC Health Department — up from 965 over the same period in 2020.
“Because drug packaging is imprecise, users are playing Russian roulette,” her office stated in its 2021 annual report.
Prosecutors continue to worry about how aggressively fentanyl is being marketed — particularly to kids. On Tuesday, the DEA put out a statement warning about brightly colored “rainbow” fentanyl pills and powder made to look like sidewalk chalk. The new form is “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” said Anne Milgram, the agency’s administrator.
“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” she said in a statement.
“I never thought in my career that I would see a drug that would trump methamphetamines,” added Henderson. Fentanyl, he said, has “been turned into a weapon of mass destruction.”
One former cop is upset about the lack of government funding to help law enforcement stop the flow of the drug.
“Our federal agents, they need more resources to interdict more fentanyl,” said Robert Almonte, a security consultant who worked as a narcotics investigator with the El Paso police for 25 years.
“They need the technology to detect it coming across in commercial trucks. This is a crisis and we are not treating it as a crisis. I’m frustrated and angry and I think that every American should be.”
Almonte, however, did note one encouraging development.
At a meeting in Washington DC last month with the DEA, agents vowed to do more to cut off the supply of precursor chemicals from China into Mexico, he said.
“My hat goes off to the DEA,” he said. “Without those chemicals the cartels can’t produce fentanyl — or meth for that matter.”
“Fentanyl is the biggest threat to our national security,” he added.
“People are dying by the thousands and we are not doing enough to stop it from coming across the border. We’re not recognizing the gravity of the situation.”
THE FENTANYL ROUTE: How one of the most lethal drugs in the world enters the US, turning NYC into a hub and leaving thousands dead
- 1. China: The production of fentanyl begins in China, where a network of underground labs batch up “precursor” chemicals needed to manufacture the drug. The US and China have both banned these and other components, but they continue to be made.
- 2. Mexico: Drug organizations including the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel use precursor chemicals from China to manufacture fentanyl, which is cheaper and more profitable than heroin. One kilo of fentanyl can reap as much as $1.2 million compared to $60k from the same amount of heroin.
- 3. The Border: The flow of migrants over the US-Mexico border under Biden’s open-door policies has overwhelmed guards who have little time to check for small bricks of heroin, which make their way to NYC in box trucks and 18-wheelers.
- 4. En Route to NYC: “There’s a convergence of highways going north to Massachusetts and Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Long Island,” said Bridget Brennan, who heads the city’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, noting that densely packed fentanyl bricks travel from the border to the Great Lakes region before coming east.
- 5. Destination NYC: Hunts Point produce market in The Bronx is a hub for the lethal drug, which gets smuggled into the city amid boxes of fruits and vegetables. Bricks of fentanyl are then moved to nearby apartments where laborers produce a powder version and press the drug into pills that look just like oxycodone, which are then sold on the streets of NYC.