Ensconced in the axle of a painted-over tractor trailer, the more than 65 pounds of heroin were smuggled across the Mexican border with Texas and transported across the country to a house nestled in the woods 30 miles north of New York City.
It was part of 15,000 pounds of heroin seized in the United States last year, and the stash would have sold for up to $2.3 million wholesale across the Northeast, authorities said Thursday.
The seizure and arrests of two alleged traffickers comes amid a spike in opioid overdoses and deaths in the United States.
At the same time, America’s heroin epidemic is becoming more dangerous, as reports of heroin laced with carfentanil — the most potent opioid used commercially — are being recorded throughout the country.
“The amount of heroin this investigation prevented from ever hitting the streets is substantial — distributors could have filled at least three-quarters of a million individual dose packets and reaped substantial profits,” said Bridget Brennan, New York’s special narcotics prosecutor.
A three-month wiretap investigation by Brennan’s office and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration resulted in this week’s seizure of at least 30 kilograms of heroin and the arrests of Fernando Quiles, 47, of Texas, and Jorge Ayala, 33, of Connecticut.
“The arrests … crippled a sophisticated, well-funded heroin trafficking organization with roots in Mexico, and extending from Texas to the Northeast,” Brennan said.
The two men were arrested near a large single-family home in a wooded lot in Croton-on-Hudson in northern Westchester County, according to Brennan.
The house was recently rented to park the tractor trailer and stash the narcotics from a Mexico-based drug organization, prosecutors said.
The heroin was to be sold to distributors in New York, Long Island and across the Northeast.
“Each large seizure we make is significant as we try to rein in the heroin epidemic,” Brennan said.
Investigators discovered the drugs after noticing signs of welding on the axle, according to Brennan.
In a wiretapped conversation, prosecutors said, Quiles allegedly talked about each kilogram of heroin selling wholesale for $56,000 to $57,000.
Ayala was arrested after driving away from the house, Brennan said. In the car, investigators found plastic-sealing equipment, plastic packaging materials and a device for opening the trailer.
Quiles was picked up near the trailer. The home was empty and unfurnished, except for a narcotics ledger book, tools, a scale and packaging materials, according to prosecutors.
The heroin epidemic has worsened amid reports of the drug being laced with carfentanil. Its potency is deadly, and it is causing concern for those fighting the scourge. Recent overdose outbreaks in Ohio, Indiana and Florida have been linked to the drug.
Carfentanil is 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It is a version or analogue of fentanyl, the painkiller that most recently made headlines with its role in the death of pop star Prince.
In West Virginia on Monday, there were 27 heroin overdoses within four hours, including one death. Officials believe the drug may have been laced with something to make it particularly dangerous.
An epidemic that includes both prescription opioids and heroin has now added illicit fentanyl to the lethal mix.
Law enforcement agencies submit drug products to the Drug Enforcement Administration for testing. From 2013 to 2014, 426% more products tested positive for fentanyl, according to new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the same period, deaths from synthetic opioids increased by 79%.
Fentanyl is most commonly prescribed to cancer patients for pain relief. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.
Fentanyl is often passed off as heroin or some other pill and users have no idea they are taking the drug. Dealers are also cutting heroin and other drugs with it, because illicit fentanyl is cheap and allows them to stretch their supply.
This year in California, fentanyl was passed off as the prescription drug Norco and sold on the street. In 10 days, one batch was responsible for at least 10 deaths and 48 overdoses.
Most recently, nearly 90 heroin overdoses in five days in western Cincinnati were linked to illicit fentanyl.
After his death in April, Prince’s toxicology report found fentanyl in his system. Investigators seized pills from his Paisley Park compound that were labeled as hydrocodone, but actually contained fentanyl.
According to National Seizure System data, U.S. heroin seizures have increased 80% over five years — from 3,733 kilograms (8,229 pounds) in 2011 to 6,722 kilograms (14,819 pounds) in 2015.
In 2014,10,574 Americans died from heroin-related overdoses, more than triple the number in 2010, according to June DEA intelligence report.
“Sustained efforts to reduce the supply of heroin pouring into our country will prevent the drug from falling into the hands of new users, and, along with treatment and prevention efforts, help us turn the corner on this epidemic,” Brennan said.
Quiles and Ayala were charged with first-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, second-degree conspiracy, third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, and second-degree criminally using drug paraphernalia.
The two men were arraigned and ordered held without bail Wednesday night. It’s unclear whether they have attorneys.