25 Investigates: ‘This poison is going across the country’: Illegal drugs sent by mail in Mass.

Massachusetts ranks 4th in the nation for incoming shipments of cocaine seized by the U.S. Postal Service.

That’s according to 25 Investigates’ analysis of U.S. Postal Inspection Service data from January 2020 to December 2022.

Postal inspectors reported 296 cocaine seizures in Massachusetts over that three-year period: amounting to nearly half a ton of cocaine.

Massachusetts also ranks 7th in the country for inbound mail shipments of synthetic opioids like fentanyl – with 47 shipments seized.

With 24 million packages passing through the U.S. mail a day, most drug shipments go undetected.

“When you look at the big urban areas, that’s where most of the drugs are flowing there,” lawyer Evan Gotlob told investigative reporter Ted Daniel.

Gotlob said he worked hundreds of drug cases in the eight years he spent as a federal prosecutor in Boston. He now works as a defense attorney for the Boston office of Saul Ewing.

Gotlob says drug dealers send their products by mail to reduce cost and risk.

And dealers go to great lengths to disguise or hide contraband

“I think the craziest one I ever saw, there were 15,000 meth pills in a Lego box,” Gotlob said. “You don’t know where the drugs are coming from. There’s never a return address. And a lot of these drugs, there’s no scent to them.”

25 Investigates looked at some of the biggest drug conspiracy cases announced by the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office in recent years.

25 Investigates has found at least 8 cases since 2016 where federal authorities in Massachusetts have pressed charges against dozens of people who allegedly trafficked drugs through the mail.

‘One Family Clique’

One federal affidavit reviewed by 25 Investigates described packages sent to 01826, a zip code in Dracut.

One priority mail package sent to a Dracut home was described as having: “998 grams of cocaine stored inside a dog food container”.

Federal prosecutors linked the shipment to the Lowell-based street gang “One Family Clique.”

In 2021, federal prosecutors charged 15 of the gang’s members and associates for allegedly perpetrating a large-scale and long-running drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracy. Drugs they trafficked in included: heroin, cocaine, cocaine base, fentanyl, methamphetamine and MDMA.

Prosecutors allege that gang members starting in 2019 used the U.S. Postal Service to receive shipments of illegal narcotics and ship cash proceeds to suppliers.

Most of the drug packages came from California.

Low level associates were paid 250 dollars to receive them at their homes

The affidavit places gang members at post offices in Tewksbury and Billerica. And a “stash house” in Lowell, where gang meetings and other illegal activities took place.

Among the drugs seized in the One Family Clique investigation: a package sent from California to Nashua, N.H. with 10.6 pounds of crystal meth.

“A dangerous game”

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service says eliminating drugs and contraband by mail is a top priority.

Daniel Adame oversees drug inspections for the USPIS.

“When we can take do a big takedown arrest – 10 to 15 drug dealers at the same time – that’s certainly a show of force that we put out there to say we don’t want this in our system and we’re going to do everything we can to stop it,” said Adame, the Postal Inspector in Charge of the Contraband Interdiction and Investigations Division for USPIS.

Nationwide, USPIS reported 404 seizures of meth, 421 of cocaine, 269 of synthetic opioids and 55 seizures of heroin from October to December 2022.

Postal inspectors nationwide remove drugs from the mail and help investigate and arrest criminals to disrupt drug trafficking networks, according to a 2020 strategy plan.

That includes 2,562 arrests in 2019 alone.

Penalties for trafficking drugs through mail often carry mandatory prison sentences of at least 5 years for small quantities and ten years for larger quantities.

“You could take off low level members all day, but the impact will not be as much as if you take off a supplier, where you’re really kind of going to the heart of something and dismantling the drug trafficking organization,” Adame said.

To have the most impact, Adame said: “You have to take their drugs, you have to take their guns and you have to take their money.

Adame said their goal is interdicting drugs at the earliest point in the mail stream.

To inspect a package, law enforcement must usually obtain a search warrant based on reasonable suspicion.

That’s because U.S. Mail is protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Confiscated packages will be sent out for testing if postal inspectors find white powders or other suspicious materials.

The Postal Service also works on educating postal employees about the danger of being recruited to deliver packages.

In November 2022, a Lowell postal worker pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston for allegedly attempting to bribe a postal supervisor.

Prosecutors alleged the worker asked the supervisor to help him in a scheme to divert postal packages suspected of containing cocaine.

The worker was alleged to have left $850 in a Dunkin Donuts bag outside the supervisor’s car to entice him, and later told him: “That was a nice envelope for starts.”

When drugs are detected in the mail, investigators will often have the package delivered to see who accepts it.

That’s according to Anthony Cangelosi – a former Homeland Security investigator turned criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

From there, he says they will follow the drugs to identify bigger players.

“The more sophisticated they are, the more safety nets they’re building in,” Cangelosi told Ted Daniel. “So it’s not uncommon if someone up the food chain contracts with someone down. Once they know something’s wrong, they cut off all communication with that person.”

“Sometimes we have to interdict drugs just to get them, get them out and destroy them,” he said. “Other times, we’re building cases. Some of these cases take three or four years to develop.”

Adame said going after drug trafficking organizations is crucial – but requires agility.

“Drug trafficking organizations change quickly,” Adame said. “Once you find that you’re able to be effective in seizing or interdicting drugs, they will change their course and we have to be agile enough to do that as well.

Adame said the agency launched a task force officer program in 2020 to help state and local law enforcement better work together nationwide.

He said that partnership, local insight and sharing of resources like canines has proved invaluable.

The U.S. recently announced a new Southwestern Border Initiative as part of the White House Task Force on Illicit Drugs.

“It’s a dangerous game, but something that we take very seriously because we don’t want to be an unwitting accomplice in delivering drugs across the country,” Adame said.

Adame said he’s also seen drug cartels sprouting in more rural areas, where such trafficking can have an even greater impact in communities with less resources.

He said shipments of drugs primarily come from two regions of the country: the southwest border area of the country - California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

And then, Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico for us is really a pipeline for cocaine into the United States,” he said. “In the southwest border, you really see the fentanyl, the cocaine and the methamphetamine that are coming through in high volumes because they’re being smuggled across that Southwest border.”

“This poison is going… across the country”

Data reviewed by 25 Investigates shows examples of large packages of narcotics sent to zip codes in Lowell, Ma. – and then smaller shipments of drugs sent out and later seized.

“Certainly you see, usually, larger shipments coming into one location and maybe being distributed from there, whether in the local community or maybe in a different way,” Adame said. “Sometimes dark web vendors will get a larger shipment and then ship them out in smaller packages across the country.”

With the rise of the dark web over the last two decades, postal inspectors’ work has grown more complicated.

“The dark Web offers a level of anonymity to talk to buyers and sellers,” Adame said. “You’re able to disguise it on the dark Web, under the Tor network. And you’re able to peddle your deadly poisons to anybody who can get on to the dark web and make a purchase.”

In March 2022, a federal court judge in Boston sentenced the 25-year-old Brockton leader of a dark web drug operation that advertised cocaine, Xanax, Keatmine and MDMA – also known as ecstasy.

The Brockton man got eight years in prison and three years of supervised release. And he had to forfeit 59 Bitcoin – then worth over $2 million.

Prosecutors say the leader of the drug organization got wholesale quantities of controlled substances in the mail from various international sources. Then, he and co-conspirators processed and manufactured those drugs at an office space rented in Stoughton.

They then mailed the drugs to customers throughout the nation.

Keeping a close eye on data trends is key, according to Adame.

“We look at a lot of data,” Adame said. “We look at past seizures. We look at ongoing cases, things that may link current cases to other parcels that may be out there.”

“We’re a small piece of a very much bigger drug game in this country. and we understand what role we play,” Adame said. “Many times what we do leads to bigger investigations and bigger seizures.”

And even more vital, as deadly fentanyl snakes through the country, drug traffickers market to young people online and tens of thousands of people die of overdoses.

“This poison is going to all the communities across the country,” Adame said. “And we have made it a priority to attack fentanyl and to really do everything that we can to get it out of the mainstream.”

“Whether that’s through cargo, through human carry vehicles, whatever it may be, or a tunnel system,” he said.

Around 2018 and 2019, fentanyl shifted from an international to a domestic problem, he said.

“There was a shift in how fentanyl was getting into the country, specifically where in the past we were seeing it more directly mailed into the country in 2013 through about 2018,” Adame said. “Since then, we really see it in domestic mail because really it’s Chinese working with Mexican cartels to produce it in Mexico, and it’s smuggled into the country in a number of different ways.”

In 2018, the federal STOP Act required other countries to share “advanced electronic data” on all international packages.

A bill sponsored by U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) would create a new criminal penalty for falsely misrepresenting a package’s country of origin, among other things.

Top zip codes in MA

According to the U.S. Postal Inspection seizure data reviewed by 25 Investigates, the 01841 zip code in Lawrence received the most drug shipments in the state - with 38 packages seized.

Second on the list of top zip codes: the 01902 area of Lynn with 17 seized shipments.

Other top zip codes in eastern Massachusetts: 01843 in Lawrence is 3rd.

And 01844 - in Methuen - is 7th.

On the flip side – The 02124 neighborhood of Dorchester is where the largest number of drugs is shipped from based on seizures.

88 in total.

In September 2022, federal prosecutors indicted 21 people in Lawrence and Southbridge for allegedly distributing cocaine and fentanyl throughout the North Shore and central Massachusetts.

Prosecutors say the traffickers obtained large amounts of cocaine from Puerto Rico and then sent packages containing fentanyl to recipients in Florida and elsewhere.

Inspectors seized about 9 kilograms of cocaine from packages sent through the mail and 800 grams of fentanyl.

According to the federal affidavit, investigators looked into a package containing suspected cocaine sent to a Lawrence home located in 01843.

“On June 4, 2022, investigators identified the package, which originated in Manati, Puerto Rico,” reads the affidavit. " It had been mailed earlier the same day, destined for “122 Newton st, Lawrence 01843.”

Investigators then got a warrant to search the package.

“Inside, they found a Black and Decker box with two brick-shaped objects wrapped in white plastic inside,” reads the affidavit.

And inside the white plastic, investigators “found a white-powder substance wrapped in a vacuum sealed bag inside a carbon paper and electrical tape wrapping.”

Investigators sent the powder to the DEA laboratory, where it tested positive for cocaine and weighed 2,003 grams- about 4.4 pounds.

The investigators then intercepted phone calls among the alleged traffickers as they discussed the delay in receiving the package.

Marijuana seizures

Overall, marijuana accounts for most seizures.

Adame said marijuana makes up 85% of the packages seized by count and 87% of the drugs seized by weight.

“By and large, what we’ve tried to do is focus our investigations on the high-impact drugs, the fentanyl, the cocaine and the methamphetamine,” Adame said. “And really just interdict the marijuana.”

Even though marijuana is legal in Massachusetts, it’s still a federal crime to ship it by mail.

Nearly 34 hundred pounds of pot was seized in the mail in Massachusetts from 2020 to 2022.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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