Woman charged with smuggling fentanyl at Presidio Port of Entry sentenced to 14 years in prison

ALPINE — Last Monday, a woman caught at the Presidio Port of Entry with large amounts of fentanyl and methamphetamine was sentenced to 14 years in prison. The defendant — Cherakee Lee Perez — was indicted by District Judge David Counts of a single count of possession with intent to distribute both narcotics. 

On January 12, Perez was flagged for secondary inspection at the Presidio International Bridge after telling a customs official that she was traveling to Oklahoma from Camargo, Chihuahua, because her husband had recently been deported. In secondary, a narcotics detection dog flagged the vehicle and uncovered 4.5 kilograms of methamphetamine and 7 kilograms of fentanyl.

Per an affidavit by Homeland Security Investigations Task Force Officer Michael McCall, Perez then told law enforcement that she expected to receive $7,000 for smuggling the narcotics into the United States and had done so successfully before. 

Perez’s arrest marked one of the first fentanyl-related incidents on the bridge. In November 2022, Presidio ISD Police Chief Joel Nuñez told a crowd of parents that fentanyl had not yet reached the area — but that they should still learn about the dangers of the drug.

Nuñez explained that fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be formulated up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. The drug has been produced in formal lab settings for decades, but snowballed into a “crisis” in the illegal narcotics trade around 2014, per the DEA

Though many urban legends circulate about the dangers of the drug — whether in fentanyl-laced Halloween candy or law enforcement overdosing on contact alone — the drug is so lethal because distributors often combine it with other narcotics, leaving many users unaware that they are even consuming fentanyl. 

Just a few weeks after Nuñez’s presentation, a Mexican national at the port of entry was flagged for a secondary inspection that yielded 2 pounds of the drug. Perez’s arrest shortly thereafter marked a large jump in the quantity of fentanyl being smuggled — a little over 15 pounds. 

Perez’s indictment coincided with Customs and Border Protection’s announcement of a major counter-fentanyl operation along the U.S.-Mexico border and a revision of the agency’s attempt to stem the flow of the drug into the United States. “The Department of Homeland Security is combating the scourge of fentanyl and other illicit synthetic narcotics with every tool at our disposal,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas wrote in a press release. 

Over the past few years, federal counter-fentanyl programs have been given cinematic names: Operation Blue Lotus, Operation Four Horsemen and the most recent, Operation Artemis. Per agency statistics, Operation Artemis yielded over 13,000 pounds of “precursor chemicals” used to make fentanyl over the course of four months. 

So far, a disproportionate number of fentanyl seizures have taken place at ports of entry in San Diego and Tucson, with over 10,000 pounds of the drug discovered at each crossing in 2022. In contrast, busts in Texas and New Mexico represent a tiny fraction of these numbers, and seizures at the Presidio Port of Entry total less than 20 pounds so far this year. (At press time, Perez’s arrest was the only fentanyl seizure reported by local law enforcement so far this year.)

Despite the scale of these federal campaigns, fentanyl continues to impact families and individuals on a much more personal level. Perez will serve up to 14 years in a federal facility “as close to [her home state of ] Oklahoma as possible,” per court documents, and will participate in an intensive drug abuse counseling and education program. 

Perez’s grandmother spoke fondly of her granddaughter in a character witness statement provided to the court. “[Perez] is such a wonderful young woman, and an even more wonderful mother to her five children, whom she loves so very much,” she wrote. “I hope to see them reunited soon.” 

Perez’s attorney did not return a request for comment.