May 29, 2024


Great Health is a Choice

DEA understood about Mexican pharmacies’ fentanyl-tainted pills

Officers at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Condition Division have acknowledged for a lot more than three several years that some pharmacies in Mexico are promoting counterfeit remedies laced with illicit fentanyl — and that American tourists are overdosing and dying from them.

A California clinical examiner very first alerted federal authorities in the spring of 2019, when 29-year-aged Brennan Harrell died of a fentanyl overdose soon after he and a good friend acquired capsules at a drug retailer in Cabo San Lucas.

Afterward, his parents reported, they cooperated with the DEA in the course of a months-extensive investigation they say ended with the company promising to just take action that did not materialize.

Previous month, a Los Angeles Situations investigation located that some pharmacies in northwestern Mexico — like various in Cabo — are not only passing off fentanyl capsules as respectable oxycodone but also advertising methamphetamine tablets as Adderall.

It is impossible to explain to how a lot of men and women have been harmed by this practice, simply because Mexican fatality data are notoriously unreliable and the U.S. governing administration has been limited-lipped about the dilemma.

To Chelsea Shover, a UCLA researcher and senior creator of a recent study that paralleled the conclusions of The Times’ investigation, the government’s reticence to act is particularly troubling in mild of Harrell’s death.

“This scenario could have been a canary in the coal mine and could have prevented extra deaths that have absolutely occurred considering the fact that then,” Shover said. “We knew when we detected counterfeits that there would be folks who died, but it’s deeply concerning that there was persuasive evidence of this a few several years back, and nevertheless there wasn’t any kind of public details campaign about it.”

Neither the DEA nor the Point out Office offered direct solutions to detailed thoughts. The DEA declined to comment. A Point out Department spokesperson referred again to an before statement in which the section stated it “will not go into element about any U.S. citizens impacted by counterfeit medicine because of to privacy issues.”

Repeated requests for comment from the Baja California Sur condition police and prosecutor’s business office went unanswered. Los Cabos municipal police did not offer comment.

Brennan Harrell, 29, was a lifelong surfer and outdoors enthusiast.

(Harrell loved ones)

Shortly right after Harrell’s death, officials in Cabo San Lucas told Mary Harrell that her young, balanced son had endured a heart attack. The family members learned what seriously transpired weeks later, when they tracked down a healthcare examiner in California keen to conduct an autopsy and extra complete toxicology testing.

In the conclude, identifying Harrell’s true result in of dying needed money, a lawyer and a excursion to Mexico — assets and possibilities several households don’t have.

U.S. authorities inaction and the simple fact that quite a few Mexican toxicology screenings never contain fentanyl have put together to develop a serious but unquantifiable issue which is poised to declare extra American lives. It is a disappointment Mary Harrell is aware all far too effectively
right after her attempts to spur a sturdy federal response went nowhere.

“No a single need to have to go by what we went through,” she claimed. “No just one.”


Escalating up in Camarillo, an affluent suburb just east of Oxnard, Brennan Harrell was well-behaved and did effectively in university. But sporting activities have been his actual passion: snowboarding, tennis, golf — and, extra than something else, browsing. He was so obsessed that even as a child he didn’t chat about turning into an
astronaut or running for president. He just required to surf.

Bob Harrell had created a comfy upper-middle-class lifestyle as a develop broker marketing apples and pears to grocery chains. His son joined the household company in 2016, five years after graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a diploma in agricultural enterprise, followed by a stint in income for a farming firm. For more than three yrs, he and his father worked facet by aspect as brokers and ate lunch collectively each individual working day in between journeys to orchards and conferences with purchasers.

Immediately after work on April 10, 2019, Harrell fulfilled his parents for dinner at a seafood restaurant. He planned to remain the night time at their dwelling before catching a flight to Cabo the up coming early morning for a bachelor bash at a swanky new vacation resort.

He was looking ahead to permitting free with 50 percent a dozen pals. About meal, Mary Harrell offered some motherly tips about the imminent journey.

“I claimed, ‘Make positive you do not choose any medication, just about anything, from any person,’” she recalled in a new interview.

Just after a pause, she additional: “I did not say pharmacy.”

The up coming early morning, Harrell left for the airport in advance of his mom woke up. He texted her immediately after he had landed and checked in at the Hotel Riu Palace.

“He mentioned he was possessing exciting,” she remembered, and that it was “nice to invest some high-quality time” with 1 of his near pals.

The two mates had determined to share a space, and they spent the afternoon likely to the scorching tub, sipping margaritas and assembly women of all ages.

When it arrived time for meal, the rest of the team resolved to go to a steakhouse downtown. But Harrell and his close friend stayed back.

As a substitute, they went to a pharmacy.

All over that time, Rosemary Allison landed in Cabo for a weeklong getaway with about a dozen mates — a vacation she’d coincidentally scheduled for the same time as Harrell’s. Allison had been buddies with the Harrells for many years and lived down the avenue from them. Brennan’s dad and mom and other individuals in the group planned to travel the adhering to day to join her at her seaside timeshare.

But about 3 a.m. April 12, Mary Harrell’s phone rang. She noticed it was her son’s pal and answered right away.

“Mary, Brennan’s dead,” he told her.

She imagined his voice sounded loud and unusual as he described how he’d found Harrell in their home, no extended respiratory, and had no idea what experienced happened to him. He may possibly have discussed more — but after all those 1st words and phrases, the relaxation was a blur.

“I never don’t forget chatting to him that considerably any longer,” she explained. “I really do not.”


As shortly as she hung up, Mary Harrell known as her daughter in Washington state. Then she identified as Allison.

“I assume this is someone’s strategy of a lousy joke,” the distraught mother informed her longtime close friend. “I won’t feel it until you go see it and tell me it’s real.”

Allison received dressed and headed to the Lodge Riu Palace, arriving perfectly prior to dawn to discover Harrell’s mates sitting down in the foyer, flanked by the lodge supervisor and police.

“They told me they had gotten to the space and he was unresponsive,” she said in an job interview.

The resort later sent a assertion to The Times that reported the front desk had gotten a frantic call from Harrell’s close friend, who requested hotel staff members to deliver up a health practitioner.

The health care provider informed the lodge personnel to simply call 911, and by the time Allison arrived, Harrell’s system was remaining geared up to go to the mortuary. When she asked to see him, she stated, authorities in the beginning informed her no.

“This is [for] my best good friend,” she remembers telling them. “I promised her I would search.”

Afterward, she identified as Mary Harrell back.

“It’s true,” Allison said. “It’s genuine.”

The moment she realized her son seriously was long gone, Mary Harrell suspected foul perform. Brennan was these kinds of a wellness nut she could not consider any all-natural way he could have died. So her mind ventured to darkish locations, at one particular place even wondering whether or not he’d been killed for his organs.

When she reeled, her daughter scrambled to find her mother and father an previously flight to Mexico so they could organize to accompany Harrell’s continues to be house and determine out what experienced took place to him. All-around 7 a.m. — about 24 hrs following their son experienced still left California — the Harrells lifted off from Los Angeles.

A few hrs afterwards, they have been in Cabo San Lucas and on their way to the law enforcement station, where by officers left them in a back again home for quite a few several hours, they say. At some point, a prosecutor showed up, had them signal some papers and allow them go away. By that stage, Mary Harrell commenced to get worried that authorities in Mexico would never ever determine out what had killed her son.

To her, the resolution appeared very clear: She essential an autopsy done in the United States. But Mexican officers said that owing to global regulations, Harrell’s entire body would have to be embalmed right before it could be sent to the United States. Embalming would make it noticeably additional tricky to carry out a total toxicology screen.

So, when they woke up April 13, the Harrells and Allison labored by means of a grim to-do listing: contacting nearby doctors who could possibly be prepared to extract Brennan’s blood, looking for vials and striving to decide which governing administration official could grant them permission to deliver samples dwelling.

Right after two very long times of seeking for answers, the Harrells on April 14 went out to supper with their good friends.

In the middle of the meal, Mary Harrell’s cellular phone rang. The toxicology benefits ended up in — and they confirmed no drugs in her son’s physique apart from a smaller sum of cannabis and some liquor. The tests incorporated preliminary screenings for amphetamines, benzodiazepines, cocaine and morphine — but not fentanyl.

In the last autopsy report, officers in Mexico wrote that Brennan had endured a myocardial infarction and bronchoaspiration. In other terms, he died of a coronary heart assault and an obstructed airway — a catch-all description that did absolutely nothing to make clear why these issues experienced transpired in the to start with place.


On April 16, 2019, the Harrells flew back again to L.A., then drove straight from the airport to the Ventura County Clinical Examiner’s Place of work, where they handed over a cooler made up of vials of their son’s blood and other bodily fluids.

It would consider months for the remaining benefits to appear again.

In the meantime, the Harrells ended up determined to know what had took place to Brennan. So they questioned the a single particular person who may know: the pal who’d been with him.

He appeared unwilling to remedy issues. But a couple times later, he agreed to have lunch with Bob Harrell and tell him about the several hours main up to Brennan’s demise.

“He stated they went to a pharmacy and bought no matter what they acquired,” Bob Harrell reported. “And then a little something occurred.”

Harrell’s good friend was vague about the aspects. But later, an additional friend despatched a picture of the drugs: a handful of white bars that appeared to be 2-milligram tablets of Xanax and a single blue, circular tablet that looked just like 30 milligrams of oxycodone — drugs so regularly counterfeited that the Justice Office has warned that these purchased on the road are “routinely” laced with fentanyl. The U.S. federal government has issued no this sort of warning about treatment from Mexican pharmacies.

When the U.S. toxicology report came in a handful of weeks afterwards, it showed that Harrell had died of a drug overdose.

Specially, he experienced alprazolam — the energetic ingredient in Xanax — and alcoholic beverages in his blood, both equally at these kinds of reduced stages that Dr. Christopher Young, Ventura County’s main healthcare examiner, said that even the two alongside one another would not have been more than enough to eliminate him.

But then there was the “much larger concentration” of fentanyl.

“Of the 3, that’s the one particular that stands out,” Younger mentioned in an interview. “It’s a lot far more telling than the other two.”

Although he understood about the surge of people today dying from fentanyl-tainted supplements, Younger had
never listened to of it going on with products acquired from a drugstore. Alarmed, he alerted the DEA, with which he frequently interacted as clinical examiner.

“I keep in mind conveying this situation and emphasizing that this wasn’t just one from my county, but that I just desired them to be informed of it,” he stated, noting that he brought it up a lot more than the moment.

“I wanted to impress upon them how abnormal this was,” he added. “They had been anxious.”

In truth, the DEA was anxious sufficient that agents known as Bob and Mary Harrell.

In accordance to the few, DEA investigators met with them continuously, sifted by means of texts on their son’s phone and interviewed several of his buddies.

Soon after months of meetings with DEA officers and doing their very best to nudge alongside the investigation, the Harrells stated, a federal agent referred to as them to report that the company had completed its probe — and that it appeared Brennan experienced died from taking a counterfeit tablet procured at a pharmacy in Cabo San Lucas.

Mary Harrell remembers the agent declaring the DEA had “a seriously great case,” which she assumed intended they experienced a system to shut down some pharmacies.

“But,” she said the agent included, “from now on we cannot explain to you what we’re doing.”


As she labored via her grief, she started out crafting to lawmakers and government organizations. At one particular issue, she sent a top rated Condition Department official a plea for action to hold Us residents abroad from struggling a fate related to her son’s.
Signed “Mary A. Harrell and Relatives,” the November 2019 email specific their ordeal and known as into dilemma a regulatory process which is supposed to continue to keep folks like the nutritious 29-calendar year-previous safe and sound.

“Since Mexico does not examination for fentanyl,” she wrote, “I wonder how several other fatalities are from this?”

The response she received was prompt but cursory. Over the following couple of months, she emailed once more and again, begging the federal government to explain to individuals about the risk.

“I don’t realize how lots of deaths would be viewed as Adequate to challenge warnings,” she wrote that December.

“If there experienced been warnings I imagine my son would continue to be alive,” she included in the letter. “Travelers likely to Mexico have to have to be knowledgeable of this.”

At some point, in early 2020, a State Department official in Mexico emailed to permit her know the division experienced extra a few paragraphs about prescription drugs to its web-site.

It is not on the most important page of vacation advisories for Mexico. Tucked away on the place details webpage, just after numerous thousand words of text, is a single sentence that hints at the issue: “Counterfeit medicine is frequent and could demonstrate to be ineffective, the mistaken energy, or have unsafe ingredients.”

Considerably from warning tourists absent from pharmacies, the internet site endorses that they stick to “reputable establishments.”

For industry experts in harm reduction who analyze methods to stop opioid fatalities, that response appears to be woefully inadequate.

“The Point out Office and everyone offering warnings about medicine needs to be explicit,” reported Maia Szalavitz, author of “Undoing Medicine: The Untold Story of Damage Reduction and the Long term of Addiction.” “People who vacation to Mexico to get low cost medicines require to know that this is a danger that is real.”

For Mary Harrell, the language the Condition Division included about Mexican pharmaceuticals was deeply disappointing.

“They gave me that little included clause,” she stated. “That’s it.”