November 2, 2022 437 PM
PRESIDIO — Last Wednesday, Presidio ISD Police Chief Joel Nuñez gave a presentation on fentanyl to a small crowd of parents at the Blue Devil Gym. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that the CDC warns can be 50 times stronger than heroin. His presentation gave parents basic facts about the drug and its distribution as well as how to spot potential fentanyl overdoses.
The informational program was a part of Red Ribbon Week, an annual nationwide drug awareness campaign. The tradition started as a way of honoring Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who was tortured and murdered after working undercover to expose illegal drug networks in Mexico.
These days, Red Ribbon Week is a more lighthearted affair. Presidio ISD students were given a different costume prompt each day, from dressing up as their future selves to exploring fashion trends of the past. The week was capped off by a parade down O’Reilly street and a bonfire at the high school to “light it up” against drugs.
Wednesday’s presentation was the one Red Ribbon Week event specifically geared toward parents. While Nuñez planned to host informational talks at the schools about opioid abuse and overdose, he wanted to target parents first. “Kids are going to be kids,” he said. “Help from our parents and families is needed.”
Fentanyl was patented in the 1950s, but has become a hot-button issue in recent years. The concern about fentanyl today isn’t about its use in medical settings — it’s lab-synthesized knockoffs that have been found laced in street drugs, causing a rash of overdoses around the country. Overdoses from synthetic opioids have been steadily rising in Texas over the last few years.
Nuñez stressed to parents that fentanyl hadn’t yet made it to Presidio, as far as law enforcement was aware — but that he worried it was on the way. In early October, Customs and Border Protection in El Paso seized almost 17 pounds of fentanyl in a single bust. “We have not had any cases here, but it’s very close,” he said. “We’re learning as we go.”
One form of fentanyl Nuñez warned parents of was rainbow fentanyl — a brightly-colored version of the drug in pill form that the DEA called an “alarming emerging trend” in a press release from August. “Rainbow fentanyl is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram wrote.
That DEA release caught like wildfire on TV and talk radio ahead of Halloween, making rainbow fentanyl, in the words of one NPR report, “the latest Halloween bogeyman.” Rumors circulate every year that parents should be on the lookout for drug-laced treats in their childrens’ candy buckets, despite there being no statistics or case studies to back up those fears.
There have been some reports of fentanyl being concealed in candy packaging for transport — on October 19, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department put out a release after seizing 12,000 fentanyl pills disguised as packets of SweeTarts, Nerds and other popular kinds of candy.
Nuñez was concerned the Mexican cartels responsible for moving drugs through the region could take the same approach, and sloppy trafficking could prove fatal. He asked parents to imagine a number of scenarios: what if one of the fake candy packages fell off a shipment in a truck? “We don’t know if it was intended for kids, but either way it’s very dangerous,” he said.
Kids are way more likely to encounter rainbow fentanyl in the home of a friend or family member struggling with addiction, Nuñez eventually conceded. If left out unattended, the brightly-colored pills might entice young ones. “It’s very possible for a child to take one by accident,” he said.
One concerned mother asked if the pills actually taste like candy. “No,” replied Nuñez. “They taste like drugs.”
In any form, the drug can prove fatal in doses as small as the equivalent of 15 grains of salt. Symptoms of a fentanyl overdose include sleepiness, breathing problems, small or constricted pupils, choking, nausea, confusion, clammy skin, discolored lips or nails, and a loss of consciousness. “It can become fatal pretty quickly,” Nuñez explained.
All Presidio ISD Police officers carry Narcan, or naloxone, in case of a suspected overdose. Narcan comes in injectable and inhalable forms, and is commonly used to help restore breathing in people who have overdosed on opioids.
Presidio Police Department Chief Margarito Hernandez said that his officers did not yet carry Narcan, but they had ordered some and were awaiting the necessary training. He agreed with Nuñez that fentanyl had not yet become a local issue. “We haven’t had to deal with fentanyl yet, but it is really scary when you read about the drug,” he said.
For Hernandez, curtailing the spread of illegal drugs in the borderlands is personal. During his childhood, he watched his hometown of Redford fall apart as more and more locals got involved in the drug trade. “I grew up here and went to high school in Presidio — at one point or another, you were exposed to drugs,” he said.
This Red Ribbon Week, Hernandez made an appearance in local schools to educate kids about the dangers of drug use. He stressed that prevention comes down to the individual — no matter where or how an individual grew up, choosing to use or traffic drugs is a personal choice. “I told them it was their choice and their decision — don’t try to be like anyone else. [Drugs] affect everybody,” he said.
His biggest piece of advice for parents was to take an active role in talking to their kids about drugs and addiction. He also urged keeping a close eye on where and with whom their children spend time. “Sometimes you don’t think about it — you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just a little girl.’ But you don’t know who the parents are, who the siblings are. That can be a big red flag.”