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254-pound fentanyl seizure sets record at Nogales border crossing

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 1/31/2019 Rafael Carranza

NOGALES — Customs officers stationed at the commercial border crossing in Nogales made the largest fentanyl seizure ever recorded at any port of entry in the United States the day after President Donald Trump signed a bill putting an end to the longest government shutdown in history.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a canine officer alerted other officers to the presence of 254 pounds of fentanyl hidden inside an 18-wheeler carrying cucumbers, during a secondary inspection at the Mariposa port of entry just past noon on Saturday.

"It has been sent for a chemical analysis so we won't know the purity until a much later date," said Michael Humphries, the port director for Nogales. 

He noted just how deadly that amount can be in very small doses. The synthetic opioid is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In addition to the fentanyl, officers also seized 395 pounds of methamphetamine hidden inside the compartment in the 18-wheeler.

The smuggling of both opiates has been on the rise through ports of entry in recent years along the U.S.-Mexico border, Customs and Border Protection statistics on drug seizures show. 

But even so, this seizure on Saturday was both surprising and alarming, according to Guadalupe Ramirez, who oversees all border crossings in Arizona. 

"Normally, the southwest border ports are intercepting the most fentanyl, compared to other ports of entry, airports, seaports, the northern border," he said, noting that Nogales is one of the key routes.

"This is the largest fentanyl seizure in any port of entry," he said. "In CBP, in the history of CBP, this is the largest fentanyl seizure."

MORE:  Most drugs get smuggled through ports of entry. A wall won't stop it.

Officers arrested the driver of the 18-wheeler and handed him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, which goes after and prosecutes transnational criminal activity.

Humphries said that given the potency of the drugs, officers working that day took additional precautions to handle and avoid exposure to them, including protective gear.

"We package it, we tape it up. If we cut an area, we secure it," he said. "We have some smaller amounts that will go inside a smaller bucket, that bucket will be taped and that bucket will be placed in a larger bucket. That bucket will be secured and taped so we have to make sure there will be no accidents."

As an additional precaution, officers also destroyed the shipment of cucumbers inside the 18-wheeler.

Nogales is at the peak of the winter produce season. Millions of pounds of winter produce cross the border each day from Mexico to supermarkets all along the western United States. 

An average of 1,500 trucks cross each day through the Mariposa commercial crossing during this time, according to Customs and Border Protection in Arizona.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 254-pound fentanyl seizure sets record at Nogales border crossing

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