The New Bootleggers: Opioids flood Chicago by mail

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff via WLS logo
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
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The New Bootleggers: Opioids flood Chicago by mail

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Nearly a century after gangster Al Capone fed Chicago's ravenous appetite for alcohol, there is a new bootlegger in town.

Unlike the high-maintenance distilleries and cartage networks of the 1920's, the 2017 bootleggers are selling opioid products over the internet and having their orders hand-carried by package delivery services or the U.S. Postal Service.

Despite a crackdown by federal authorities and INTERPOL this fall that shut down 3,584 illicit drug websites in 123 nations, including 500 in the U.S., the faucet of opioids continues to flow into O'Hare Airport from overseas.

Rogue operators on well-manicured websites continue to advertise and illegally sell pain products that are heavily regulated in the U.S. and require a doctor's prescription. Illegally-produced fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine and one of the most popular synthetic opioids attracting internet-order customers, investigators tell the ABC7 I-Team. Unlike heroin and prescription painkillers, which are relatively bulky, enough fentanyl to get nearly 50,000 people high can fit in a standard first-class envelope.

"We are working at the federal level with our partners at the United States Postal Service to increase our access to this information from foreign postal authorities, allowing us to add another layer to our enforcement approach and recently began such targeting here in Chicago just earlier this month," said Matthew Davies, area port director in Chicago for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

On Tuesday federal officials, the Illinois State Police and Governor Bruce Rauner unveiled new high-tech detection systems at the O'Hare mail facility, aimed at curbing the influx of fentanyl and other deadly opioids.

"There is great urgency to curb the spread of the opioid epidemic as more Illinoisans die each year from overdoses," Rauner said. "These enhanced screening procedures will decrease the prevalence of opioids and fentanyl entering our communities. Collaboration amongst federal, state and local government is crucial to combat the projected increases in opioid-related deaths."

There were nearly 2,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in Illinois last year. Most of the OD deaths were in the Chicago metro area, although the per capita opioid overdose rate is highest in downstate and outlying counties. Authorities said 2017 totals will be even higher, totaling about four overdose deaths per day in Chicagoland.

O'Hare's mail facility is the second-largest gateway for illegal opioid shipments based on package seizures, authorities said. Nine of every 10 packages of fentanyl intercepted by investigators and drug-sniffing dogs originate in China and Hong Kong, according to federal agents.

Beginning early next year, Illinois state police said a new web-based tracking app will be rolled out for law enforcement called the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program. "ODMAP," as it is known, combines street-level data with digital mapping to help public health officials, police departments, and first responders track and respond to overdoses in real time.

"ODMAP is a tool that gives law enforcement and health officials the data they need to respond swiftly and effectively to spikes in overdoses," said Leo Schmitz, Illinois State Police director.

Against a backdrop of 33,000 overdose deaths each year in the U.S., federal drug investigators in September took part in INTERPOL's Operation Pangea X, targeting the illicit online sale of medicines and medical devices. Four hundred arrests were made worldwide but, as in Al Capone's days, when one bootlegging operation was smashed there were new ones operating the next day.

In early September Gov. Rauner formed the Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force. Rauner appointed Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti to co-chair the task force with Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. On Tuesday Rauner said that the state's goal is to "cut opioid deaths by one third over the next three years."