Customs and Border Protection reveals secret “ground zero” in its fight against fentanyl

In an unmarked building at an undisclosed location in California — hidden in a vault and locked behind security gates — are the spoils of the war against drugs.

“The drugs are right here with the fentanyl,” said a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, as CBS News was taken inside a U.S. government bunker at a secret location. 

Chief among the stacks is 8,500 pounds of fentanyl and the chemical precursors used to make the deadly drug, all of which will soon be destroyed by being burned. 

But before fentanyl — which can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin — is destroyed, officers have to find it. The process includes scouring packages taken off cargo flights at Los Angeles International Airport. Many of the packages originate from China.

In June, Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized more than 200 kilograms of fentanyl precursor chemicals and the Justice Department charged four China-based companies and eight Chinese nationals with distributing fentanyl in the U.S. 

Last October, a traveler tried to get 12,000 suspected fentanyl pills through security at LAX by hiding them inside candy boxes.  

“This literally is ground zero for our fight against fentanyl precursors,” said Troy Miller, acting commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Miller oversees Operation Artemis, the U.S. counter-narcotics mission that intercepted 8,000 pounds of chemical precursors in the last three months.

“This is an emergency. It’s an opioid epidemic where we need to go after the transnational criminal organizations,” Miller said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that he will increase the number of California Army National Guard troops at the U.S.-Mexico border by about 50% to support CBP’s efforts to block fentanyl smuggling.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl were responsible for more than 70,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2021  — about two-thirds of all fatal drug overdoses that year — according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In September of 2022, 15-year-old Melanie Ramos was found dead from a fentanyl overdose in a Helen Bernstein High School bathroom in Los Angeles.

Her aunt, Gladys Manriques, calls fentanyl the “devil’s pill.”

“It’s poisonous,” Manriques told CBS News. “It’s poison. It’s playing roulette with your life.”

Miller said a troubling trend is the hundreds of fentanyl pill presses seized this summer alone, a sign that drug gangs are making pills on U.S. soil.

“You can literally press pills in an apartment complex,” Miller said. “You can press thousands of pills. There’s no growing season. It’s purely a synthetic made from chemicals.”

The DEA said it seized more than 50 million fentanyl-laced pills in 2022, and over 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. It said the seized fentanyl would be enough to cause more than 379 million fatal overdoses. 

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