CBS 58 Exclusive: Behind the scenes with the Drug Enforcement Administration
WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- It's a growing epidemic across the country. Illegal drugs being smuggled into the U.S. in their basic form are being enhanced here, often with a synthetic opioid that can kill you.
CBS 58 got an exclusive look at what goes into taking down a drug lab. It was a rare opportunity, and we were the first in Milwaukee to get to see it firsthand.
DEA agents from the Illicit Hazard Enforcement Team allowed us to go along as they trained for a very dangerous job -- executing a search warrant at a drug lab.
It's a well-ordered rush into a suspected drug house. Agents with the DEA march inside, guns out, helmets and masks on.
"People are smarter nowadays and they're more prepared for us."
To throw off the bad guys, agents may first set up a tactical electronic distraction device.
"Get your hands up. Put your hands in the small of your back!" said one agent on a simulated drug arrest.
This training session involved DEA agents from as far away as Green Bay.
"Step forward. Can you reach back and touch the wall with your foot? Perfect."
They're utilizing a building just outside the West Allis police station. "Police search warrant!" said an agent training to bust in a door.
In six seconds, he's in. Agents train as if this is a high hazard clandestine drug lab.
We were asked to keep the names and faces of these agents private, as the effectiveness of their job with the Illicit Hazard Enforcement Team depends on it.
"And everybody here that does that is volunteers. Nobody's made to do it so everybody believes in what they're doing."
No place has been spared. From the Northwoods down to the Illinois state line, Wisconsin has seen a sharp increase in overdoses and deaths since the pandemic began. More than 1,500 in 2020 compared with nearly 1,200 in 2019.
"It's an urban environment, sometimes it's very rural, sometimes it's a fortified structure with violent people inside."
Milwaukee County's numbers are also alarming -- 418 in 2019 and 546 in 2020. So far in 2021, 389 people have died from overdoses and 109 others are pending toxicology. A number of the deceased had no idea they bought a lethal dose on the black market.
"So an individual expecting to get an oxycontin or an oxycodone is in fact purchasing a fentanyl pill or a pill that has a portion of fentanyl that could be lethal," said Assistant Special Agent in Charge John McGarry.
That's why the DEA's going hard after these clan labs. The DEA seized 77,000 counterfeit pills containing fentanyl in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.
Twenty-four kilograms of fentanyl was seized in the three states in August and September.
"Fentanyl, or other fentanyl analogs that are extremely harmful and fatal in many circumstances, are being pressed into pills to appear like legitimate pharmaceutical grade Percocets, Vicodins, oxycontin, oxycodone," said McGarry.
Clearing the scene is just the first part of an operation like this. After the arrests, it's all about bagging the evidence. To do so, fully encapsulated Level A suits are a must.
Even a small amount of inhaled fentanyl can be deadly, so they take the greatest precautions.
On the table is self-rising flour, unfilled jars and plastic bottles, and a press that might be used to get fentanyl into empty pill bottles.
A laser has the ability to read what's in the bag.
"So this will actually tell you what this substance is? CBS 58's Michele Fiore asked. "Yes, a good enough concentration of what it is."
Processing a crime scene -- a long day, but a satisfying one for those involved.
"So when they grab a fentanyl press or something off the street, that's how many fentanyl tablets aren't getting made that day or that week."
"The focus of this program and this initiative or this collateral duty is keeping the community safe, keeping the community safe, the citizens that live in the community, because these are -- they're explosive, they're volatile," said McGarry.
This is Red Ribbon Week for the DEA, the week when they honor agents' lives lost and promote a drug-free lifestyle to all.