ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The national director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is calling a recent drug bust in Albuquerque the “largest” in the Bureau’s history. In a September 1 search of multiple locations around the city, law enforcement say they recovered more than 1 million fentanyl pills.

“In September, our Albuquerque office conducted the largest takedown of fentanyl ever for the FBI,” Director Christopher Wray said in a video posted on YouTube. It was “enough fentanyl to have killed thousands of people,” according to Wray.

The drug bust was the latest step in “Operation Atonement,” an FBI operation aimed at dismantling the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico (SNM) prison gang. Since Operation Atonement began seven years ago, over 160 members and associates have been arrested, according to an FBI press release. And at least 12 gang-related homicides have resulted in federal murder charges. In the September 1 bust, the FBI partnered with local police and other federal agents to seize the large quantity of fentanyl.

Illegal fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s much stronger than morphine, is primarily produced in Mexico, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. It can slow breathing, reduce blood pressure, cause seizures, and lead to death.

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A photo from federal court documents show the drugs, cash, and firearms seized.

Since 2016, fentanyl abuse has been a primary driver of overdose deaths across the nation. In New Mexico, fentanyl and methamphetamine overtook heroin and prescription opioids as the top cause of overdose deaths, according to a 2021 report from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee. Fentanyl and meth are “cheaper and more widely available as street drugs,” interviews with law enforcement and Department of Health Officials reveal.

New Mexico’s fentanyl deaths have been on the rise since 2015, data from the state’s Department of Health shows. Statistics published earlier this year show that New Mexico’s 2020 fentanyl-related death rate was seven times higher than it was in 2016.

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Deaths from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) have been on the rise across the nation in recent years. Data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal court documents reveal that the fentanyl recently seized by the FBI likely comes from the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. In court documents, a unnamed source says hundreds of thousands of fentanyl pills are moved up from Mexico before being distributed to several gangs around Albuquerque before being sold “within several shady hotels around Albuquerque.” The federal attorneys allege this system provides a “steady stream of fentanyl and methamphetamine in New Mexico.”

The September bust led to one person facing federal charges. And four other individuals, suspected to be connected, are in custody. But the Albuquerque FBI office says investigations are ongoing and they expect more arrests to come.