Federal authorities charged 30 people and seized more than 2 kilos of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl in a predawn raid throughout Greater Lawrence Tuesday, dismantling what was called “one of the largest fentanyl trafficking organizations ever seen in Massachusetts.”
“A dangerous pipeline of fentanyl and other drugs has been disrupted and dismantled,” Acting US Attorney William Weinreb said at a news conference at the federal courthouse in South Boston, where bags of fentanyl and four of the six guns seized in the raid were displayed.
More than 250 law enforcement officials took part in the sweep, which was overseen by the US Drug Enforcement Administration in a yearlong investigation dubbed “Operation Bad Company.”
Authorities said 30 people were part of at least three linked organizations, and 27 of those people were arrested Tuesday morning. Essex County prosecutors charged another 20 people with state crimes through the course of the investigation.
At the news conference Tuesday, authorities emphasized their shared concern with the havoc the drug fentanyl has wreaked throughout Massachusetts and the country, causing unprecedented overdose rates, and the impact they expect the arrests will have. According to the DEA, citing state public health records, 2,069 people died of an opioid overdose in 2016, and 69 percent of those deaths were linked to fentanyl.
“Fentanyl and heroin are wreaking havoc in our communities, touching nearly every walk of life,” Weinreb said. “We are confident that the arrest of [the dealers] will make a tangible difference in the city of Lawrence and other communities suffering from the opioid epidemic.”
Authorities also pointed out that several of those who were arrested had been in the country illegally. Of those who were charged Tuesday, 12 were here without authorization — including five people who illegally reentered the country after they were deported — and two were charged as aliens in possession of a gun.
Immigration authorities also said four people had been detained for administrative immigration violations, though they have not been charged with crimes. Authorities also said they were investigating whether anyone was involved in any document fraud.
But authorities said the focus of their investigation was on the drug trafficking and the violence that often comes along with it.
Last month, Lawrence Police Chief James X. Fitzpatrick made a public plea for help from state and federal authorities to combat gun crime in the city after a surge of violence over one weekend left a man and a woman dead in separate shootings.
“What became concerning when I asked for that help is that more and more of these organizations are carrying firearms, and we’re seeing more and more of that happening,” Fitzpatrick said Tuesday, as he gestured to the guns laid out on the table. “This is an example of a good partnership — the federal, state, and local authorities helping to make Lawrence safer.”
Authorities said that a kilo of fentanyl equates to roughly 40,000 doses of fentanyl, which can sell on the street for $3 to $5 a dose. That price increases as the drug makes its way into New Hampshire and Maine. Authorities also said that fentanyl is often mixed with heroin, to make a dose of heroin more potent and to increase profits.
“If anything can be likened to a weapon of mass destruction in what it does to a community, it’s fentanyl,” said Michael J. Ferguson, special agent in charge of the DEA’s New England Field Division. “It can kill you if you inject it in your arm, breathe it in the air, or touch it with your skin.”
According to court records, the investigation initially focused on Juan Anibel Patrone, 26, who lives in Lawrence and is a dual citizen of the Dominican Republic and Italy.
Authorities determined that Patrone managed his operation “like a business,” according to Weinreb.
“He took orders from customers who texted and called, and he dispatched workers in shifts,” Weinreb said.
Investigators also monitored phone conversations, and the defendants were allegedly recorded discussing how best to cut and package fentanyl so that it would not be deadly but still produce the potent effect that customers craved.
One of the defendants, Ramon Gonzalez Nival, 40, a Dominican Republic national who was living in Lawrence, could be heard laughing in a recorded phone conversation and saying, “a friend of mine told me that the blue one is good, but it kills a lot of people.”
“They have no regard for the safety and well-being of those they sell and distribute to,” said Ferguson, of the DEA. “Those arrested this morning need to be held accountable for their actions, because they have chosen to distribute this poison and profit from the misery they spread.”
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.