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How Did Fentanyl Find Its Way to America’s Heartland?

No one seems to want the synthetic opioid, yet it kills more people each year than all other street drugs. Who is responsible for its rapid spread?

On September 28th, 44-year-old Marco Merino, a narcotics detective with the Columbus, Ohio Police Department, was arrested by the FBI and accused of trafficking 7.5 kilograms of fentanyl. 

According to an affidavit, in 2020, after a Columbus local was busted and charged with multiple drug offenses, he tried to work a deal with the narcs on the force to lessen his sentence. Merino allegedly decided he needed his new informant to become a drug dealer — but for him — and promised full police protection from any other cops who came sniffing around. 

In January 2021, the informant went to work — first, by securing a half kilo of coke to sell (per Merino’s alleged request), and second, by contacting the FBI, which initiated an investigation into Merino (the informant had no desire to get back into the drug game). For the next few months, Merino and John Kotchkoski, his 33-year-old partner detective, allegedly managed the informant’s drug purchases and sales while the FBI recorded everything. As the informant continued to push their coke, Merino also got chummy, sharing how he planned to purchase properties in Mexico and convert them into profit-churning Airbnb rentals, according to court records. 

By summer, Merino and Kotchkoski switched things up. Now, per court records, they wanted the informant to start pushing fentanyl. On June 23rd, Merino allegedly gave the informant a 30-gram sample. The next day, Merino allegedly called the informant and shared the update that the fentanyl they were pushing “had put a woman in the hospital.”

In August, in front of an undercover FBI agent, Merino allegedly met with the informant and gave them a full kilo of fentanyl to sell. The undercover FBI agent asked if the white power was coke. Merino had to correct him and said, “No, no, that’s fetty.” After discussing how dangerous fentanyl is to handle, and how devastating it could have been if the undercover agent had given it to someone to open if they expected to see coke, Merino allegedly said, “Right, and not even knowing, they’ll fucking drop right there.” He then laughed.

The following month, FBI agents arrested both Merino and Kotchkoski. Now both of the former narcotic officers face federal charges and 10 years to life in prison for cocaine and fentanyl distribution.

Officers Kotchkoski (left) and Merino (right)

According to the DEA, “One kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill 500,000 people.” Again, these cops allegedly had 7.5 kilos –– enough to kill everyone in the city of Chicago and still have enough left over to wipe out everyone in Austin, Texas, too.

In the court documents, the informant tried to tell the two dirty cops, on multiple occasions, that it was practically impossible to move any fentanyl on the streets of Columbus. No one wanted to buy it. Cocaine, meth, heroin were all easy, but no one wanted fentanyl. 

How, though, did all of that fentanyl make its way to Columbus, Ohio, in the first place? 

It begins, of course, with the Sacklers, the first family of opioids and the owners of Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, the name brand for the drug that became the face of the opioid crisis in America. By 2021, the family faced some 2,500 lawsuits, and they eventually agreed to pay $4.3 billion in settlements and give up ownership of Purdue for their part in creating the opioid epidemic. “You had a market that was cultivated by Purdue and grew and grew of people who were abusing prescription pharmaceuticals,” Patrick Keefe writes in his book Empire of Pain. “And then, at a certain point, a lot of them transition or graduate to illicit opioids, like heroin, and fentanyl, which, as we know, are incredibly deadly.”

In terms of the fentanyl itself, according to all available data, China is the primary source in the West. In 2019, Beijing pledged to reschedule fentanyl and all of its chemical analogues as highly illegal and to crack down on trafficking of the drug. And yet, two years later, the amount of fentanyl in the U.S. hasn’t slowed in the least. Instead, health authorities say the opioid crisis actually worsened during the pandemic. 

That said, after China reclassified fentanyl, the amount of the finished product of market-ready pills in the U.S. reportedly did drop. But that’s because the drugs that were once shipped directly to the U.S. are increasingly showing up in Mexico first, often in a different form. Basically, Chinese fentanyl producers started working with the Mexican cartels after the ban. Now some Chinese gangsters have even relocated to Mexican towns to manage shipments of fentanyl precursors, or chemicals used to create the drug. After the precursors arrive in Mexico, they’re then sold to the cartels, who combine the chemicals in Mexican “pill mills” and smuggle the fentanyl into the U.S. 

According to the latest federal report on the opioid crisis, the Mexican government claims that “seizures of illicit fentanyl at clandestine labs and ports increased six-fold in 2020, suggesting Mexico is accounting for a greater share of the fentanyl trafficked directly into the United States even though the precursor chemicals originate in China.” 

From the U.S. government

The other key component in the fentanyl triangle is money laundering, which Chinese gangsters have become the go-to specialists of, offering illegal financial services that can evade the U.S. banking system and rely on cryptocurrencies, as well as old-fashioned criminal ingenuity. The leader in this field is the Los Zheng Cartel. Operating out of Shanghai, and from behind a veil of international shell companies, the Los Zheng Cartel boasts an array of legitimate businesses, like “chemical labs, veterinary care, computers and retail.” But the cartel is just as savvy on the black market, too. 

In May 2018, U.S. authorities got a peek behind the curtain when money launderer Lim Seok Pheng was busted. The Singapore national was the lover of a Chinese gangster who had relocated to Guadalajara. When Lim was caught, she flipped and showed investigators how Chinese gangsters and Mexican cartels figured out how to avoid the U.S. banking system. Essentially, when she’d meet with a client in a major Mexican or American city, she’d set-up a “mirror transaction,” wherein the Chinese cartel would accept the Mexican cartel’s dirty cash, and then transfer the same amount in Chinese yuan. As a receipt for the transaction, Lim would hand the cartel dealer a dollar bill. The serial number on the dollar was the confirmation of their “deposit.” The Mexican cartel’s money would then be routed through Chinese banks until it was sufficiently cleaned and returned to them.

The Chinese government has distanced itself from all of this — and especially accusations that it bears some responsibility in the opioid crisis. Instead, it passed the blame to the U.S. via an open letter, claiming that it was “highly irresponsible” and “utterly false” for American authorities to claim that China is a source for fentanyl, or the precursor chemicals used to make it. “We want to remind the U.S. side that the root cause of its fentanyl abuse problem is in itself,” the letter reads.

Meanwhile, in January, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced that more Ohioans had died of an opioid overdose over a three-month period in 2020 than at any other time. “Opioid overdoses might have taken a backseat in our minds last year because of COVID-19, but make no mistake: Ohioans are dying at a devastating rate because of opioid overdoses,” he explained.

In the end, fentanyl arrived in Ohio — and Columbus in particular — for a very simple reason: It’s everywhere. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous across the U.S. at the moment that the same batch of fentanyl that killed actor Michael K. Williams in New York in September showed up in Columbus weeks later. Hell, even ISIS is facing its own opioid addiction disaster with fentanyl’s less potent cousin, tramadol. (And those same tramadol-smuggling networks cross paths with Iranian organized crime, Turkish crime families and Russian oligarchs.) 

“Fetty,” as Merino and Kotchkoski allegedly called it, is a potent, low-cost drug that dealers and producers will likely continue to use to cut other street drugs until its availability or price changes. The thing is, as Merino’s informant tried to tell him over and over again, this isn’t a demand issue. Again, nobody wants fentanyl. The powers that be simply lack the will to stop the supply — or better put, the real suppliers.