Seized pills containing fentanyl, unrelated to the Salem investigation. (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

Drug Enforcement Agency agents in Salem watched Jose D. Chavez Jr. through surveillance video as he walked down a staircase leading to a house at 1668 Madras St. S.E the night of March 10.

Agents then saw him walk through a parking lot wearing a backpack, according to an affidavit from Adam Otte, special agent assigned to the DEA’s Salem office.

Minutes later, they approached Chavez and arrested him, finding a .380 caliber pistol hidden in his waistband.

The affidavit said arresting agents found about 5 pounds of what they believed was methamphetamine in the backpack, according to the affidavit.

They then searched the Madras Street home and found in a bedroom around 2,000 counterfeit blue M30 Oxycodone pills believed to be laced with fentanyl.

Officers also found two .22-caliber pistols in the same room and another 5 pounds of suspected methamphetamine in the closet, the affidavit said. 

The search and Chavez’s arrest were part of an investigation the DEA began in February.

A federal grand jury in Portland on April 5 indicted Chavez Jr. and two others, David Delgado-Gonzalez, AGE, and Jonathan Mendoza-Escobedo, AGE, for conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and methamphetamine, two counts of distribution of fentanyl, attempted distribution of methamphetamine, possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and distribution of methamphetamine.

The DEA arrested Delgado-Gonzalez and Mendoza-Escobedo the following day. A jury trial is scheduled for June 7 in Portland U.S. District Court, court records showed.

A quarter gram of methamphetamine can sell for around $20 on the street, according to the affidavit. That means the 10 pounds officers found would amount to over $362,000.

The counterfeit pills often have a different shade of blue or are sometimes manufactured in different colors. The edges of the pills and their stamps are often rough and lack the precision of a real prescription, and some counterfeit pills will crumble easily under pressure, Otte wrote in the affidavit.

One counterfeit M30 pill can sell on the street for between $5 and $20.

Otte said drug traffickers are increasingly selling counterfeit prescription pills that are stamped with an “M” and “30” to replicate real 30-milligram Oxycodone hydrochloride pills but are manufactured with fentanyl “as the active ingredient.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid developed to treat severe pain and is often given to cancer patients. But it can be deadly when taken illicitly, particularly when users aren’t aware it’s been mixed into the drug they’re taking. 

In 2019, 36,000 Americans died from overdoses caused by synthetic opioids including fentanyl, nearly 12 times the number in 2013, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency said that number has likely increased during the pandemic.

“Fentanyl really hit Salem about three years ago, and since we have seen a huge increase in the last year to year and half,” said Lt. Michael Bennett of the Salem Police Department.

Salem detectives seized 38,431 pills containing fentanyl in 2021, Bennett said in an email.

That year, Salem emergency medical services responded to 319 medical calls for drug or alcohol overdoses, according to data provided by Capt. Darrin George, the city Fire Department’s emergency medical services coordinator.

Salem police didn’t track specific overdoses until 2021. They responded to 55 overdoses that year, of which 18 were fatal, and 11 overdoses were due to fentanyl, Bennett said.

During the first three months of 2022, the fire department had 65 overdose calls.

Of those, Salem police responded to 10 overdoses, three of which were fatal. Fentanyl was confirmed in one of the deaths, and it was suspected in the other two but not confirmed by toxicology. 

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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