St. Louis DEA announces 72 arrests, 1.3 million fentanyl pills seized in year-long operation targeting drug cartel networks

Published: May. 8, 2023 at 6:25 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is announcing the results of a year-long national operation targeting operatives, associates and distributors affiliated with two Mexican drug cartels smuggling fentanyl and methamphetamines into the U.S.

Across the nation, more than 3,300 people were arrested and nearly 44 million fentanyl pills were seized as part of Operation Last Mile. Additionally, 6,500 pounds of fentanyl powder, 91,000 pounds of meth, 8,400 firearms and $100 million were recovered.

“They’re trying to strictly make money, if you die, that’s just the cost of doing business and they move on to the next person and try to get that next person addicted,” said Michael Davis, Special Agent in Charge of the St. Louis District DEA.

Davis’ office, encompassing Missouri, southern Illinois and Kansas, netted 72 arrests, 1.3 million fentanyl pills, 100 pounds of fentanyl powder, more than 200 pounds of meth, 405 firearms and almost $500,000 in assets.

“This stuff is being made in Mexican jungles,” Davis said. “They are not measuring anything or making sure there’s a proper amount. Anytime you take a pill that was not directly given to you by your pharmacist, you’re gambling with your life.”

Fake pills, designed to look identical to many pharmaceutical pills, are the biggest challenge the DEA is facing. Because they contain fentanyl, Davis said some buyers think they are getting authentic medication, while others seeking the high fentanyl provides will knowingly buy fake pills.

“For example, it’s been pressed to look exactly like a legitimate 30 mg oxycodone pill, the same color, the same markings, everything,” he said.

Davis said billions of dollars in illicit drugs make their way across the southern border from Mexico every year, as the U.S. is the largest consumer of illicit drugs in the entire world.

Associates of the Sinaloa and Jalisco Cartels were the primary targets of the year-long operation.

“We targeted the regional distributors and local dealers,” Davis said. “Our goal in every investigation is to start at the bottom and work our way all the way to the top. Sometimes we get there, sometimes we don’t.”

Davis said once drugs are brought in the U.S., they are stored at stash houses in large cities near the border. From there, networks of drug distributors arrange for the drugs to be transported across the country to major metropolitan cities and small towns--anywhere there is demand.

To make matters worse, Davis said cartels and their distributors are able to target victims on social media, allowing their product to be more efficiently distributed across the population.

“You no longer have to go to the bad neighborhoods, step on the corner in a bad neighborhood to get your drugs,” he said. “You can just get on Snapchat, WhatsApp or other social media platforms and order up.”

Ellis and Patti Fitzwalter know the pain of substance abuse disorder well. Their son, Michael, died in 2014 when he was 22 years old from a heroin overdose.

“We felt like we were not only losing him, but I certainly felt like I lost myself,” Patti Fitzwalter said.

Patti Fitzwalter said she never thought her son would succumb to the disease of addiction, but said he began experimenting with substances when he was a teenager. She believes several mental health diagnoses were the underlying factor in her son’s sickness.

“We want parents to be proactive and to know the signs,” she said. “Pinpoint pupils, constantly scratching, things going missing...address it right then, don’t wait.”

She and her husband tried to help Michael by sending him to rehab several times, but upon returning home he would relapse, she said. She planned to talk to him about giving it another try when she came home in August of 2014 and found him unresponsive.

“There was no sign there, no needles or pills, but they told us it was heroin and Xanax,” she said. “There could have been fentanyl in there, we don’t know because they weren’t testing for it at that time.”

Now, she and Ellis dedicate their lives to educating others, encouraging parents to seek out available resources. They have resources on their website,

“They [kids] have no fear, and the problem is nowadays, that’s a death sentence,” she said. “This can tear a family apart. We don’t want to see anyone else go through this.”