A New Mexico man, Manuel Nester Vargas, has pleaded guilty to a charge of illegal drug distribution, a Class 3 felony, under a plea agreement with the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Vargas, 24, was arrested Dec. 2 in Montezuma County after selling an undercover officer the potent opioid fentanyl, according to the Cortez Police Department.
During the investigation, law enforcement officers confiscated 83 grams of fentanyl pills, which have an estimated street value of several thousand dollars.
As part of the plea deal, Vargas’ potential jail sentence would not exceed two years, said Assistant DA Will Furse. Sentencing was set for Feb. 25.
The case was part of a yearlong investigation by the Cortez-Montezuma Narcotics Investigation Team.
It had a counterfeit aspect to it that was especially dangerous, said Cortez Police Chief Vern Knuckles.
It involved counterfeit “Oxy 30” oxycodone pills imported into the Cortez area that contained fentanyl instead.
“Fentanyl is an especially dangerous opioid because it is so potent and addictive. It can cause deadly overdose,” Knuckles said. “They were intentionally made to look like an industry-produced pharmaceutical oxycodone pill.”
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, pharmaceutical fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It was developed for pain management of cancer patients.
In 2015, the DEA issued a nationwide alert about the dangers of the drug and warned its illegal use was a threat to public safety.
According to the U.S. Department of Health, 72,000 people died of overdoses in the U.S. in 2017, and 28,500 of them involved fentanyl.
In the past two years, five or six investigations have related to illegal distribution and possession of fentanyl pills, according to the Cortez-Montezuma Narcotics Team.
“We want to make sure our community knows how extremely dangerous these pills are,” said Detective Victor Galarza of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office. “They are out there being sold and trafficked. We are seeing an increase in overdoses because of it.”