NEW YORK (Reuters) - He looked like a regular mail carrier, dropping off an unremarkable package at an upscale New York City apartment tower, but neither the man nor the package were quite what they seemed.
The mail carrier was really a federal agent, conducting a so-called controlled delivery, a tactic the U.S. government employs to help stem the flow of heroin, prescription painkillers and other opioids fuelling the nation’s epidemic of fatal overdoses.
Drug-filled packages with misleading labels have become a common sight at John F. Kennedy International Airport’s (JFK) sprawling mail-sorting hangars, a front line in the battle against opioids. Many of the parcels originate in China, having been ordered on the web’s darker corners.
“Nobody anticipated the explosion we were going to face,” said Christopher Lau, who oversees the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations office (HSI) at the airport.
Fatal opioid overdoses jumped to a record high of nearly 50,000 last year, more than double the 2013 toll, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Customs agents with X-ray machines and sniffer dogs detect and seize what they can. But to track, arrest and prosecute suspected dealers, the New York HSI office organises several controlled deliveries each month, taking the packages out to see who claims them.
For this delivery, a Reuters reporter was allowed to ride along and watch the agents in action.
The package had arrived on a Friday in August, mailed from Shanghai and filled with 250 grams of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine that can kill with a 2-milligram dose. It was enough to cut into hundreds of thousands of bootleg painkiller pills, which could sell for $10 each or more. It is also often added to heroin, contributing to a rise of overdoses by unsuspecting users.
The package was an ideal candidate for a controlled delivery, Lau said. It was addressed to someone called Randy, but there was no record of anyone with that name living at the designated address. And there had been a pattern of earlier packages delivered to the building from China, often addressed to non-existent apartments or apparently fictional residents.
Before the delivery, agents replaced the fentanyl powder with coffee grounds.
More than a dozen federal agents set up surveillance around the building, snacking in unmarked cars or pretending to read a newspaper on a nearby bench, all dressed in blue jeans and sports jerseys. They watched the building’s glass-fronted lobby, waiting to see who claimed the package.
The volume of drugs coming through the mail has grown in step with legitimate online shopping, customs agents say, as Americans have taken to ordering drugs from overseas via the dark web. Agents suspect that was how the package for “Randy” came to arrive at JFK.
It is illegal to import prescription medicines and controlled substances from outside the United States.
Chinese laboratories have become the main source of fentanyl in the United States, most of it sent through the mail, the U.S. Department of Justice says.
In 2016, customs agents caught nine packages at JFK containing fentanyl, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). So far this year, they have seized more than 200, in part because of expanded screening and better training, said Anthony Bucci, a CBP spokesman.
Outside the New York apartment building, two eventless hours passed before a man emerged carrying a plastic bag. An agent discreetly tailed him. A false alarm.
Then the voice of Walter Rivera, an HSI special agent, came over the radio with a new urgency: “You see the guy who came out with a backpack right here? Gray shirt and ponytail?”
Agents had hidden a GPS tracking device in the package. The man with a ponytail fiddled on his phone and then got into a livery cab. “If the GPS goes down the block, that’s him,” Rivera radioed.
Lau watched the GPS move and bellowed, “It’s him!”
The agents tore off in their cars, sirens wailing. The confused cab driver soon pulled over by a busy sidewalk, and agents handcuffed his passenger, taking back the package.
He turned out to be the building’s concierge, who had taken the package with him at the end of his shift. He quickly confessed that his name was not Randy.
Although agents were able to make an arrest in this case, more than a million international packages arrive each day in the country, and authorities can only screen a fraction of them. No one knows how many packages of drugs slip through the net.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Berkrot