‘People are dying:’ Volusia sheriff explains uptick in drug-related deaths

Chitwood blamed ‘porous’ border for cartel activity in Central Florida during News 6 interview

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood (Copyright 2022 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Recent reports out of Volusia County show an uptick in drug-related deaths countywide — a trend that Sheriff Mike Chitwood said could be traced back to a ‘porous’ border, drug-smuggling cartels and an abundance of fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that has become increasingly present in drug-related deaths across the country.

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Records out of the sheriff’s office indicate that overdose deaths rose from 145 last year to 164 this year within a roughly seven-month period — a 13.1% increase. During the same period between 2020 and 2021, the county saw a similar increase by approximately 11.5%.

“The big issue is that everything is now laced with fentanyl,” Chitwood said. “You have college kids and high school kids who are buying what they believe to be Adderall or MDA or whatever pills, and what they’re discovering is it’s pressed fentanyl.”

Even though overall overdoses are down, Chitwood explained, the number of overdose deaths have increased, as fentanyl has been added to many other already-dangerous substances, such as marijuana, cocaine or methamphetamines.

One solution Chitwood provided was fentanyl testing strips — devices used to detect trace amounts of fentanyl in other substances — though he said it’s a controversial subject due to concerns that the strips could promote drug use.

“The overdose deaths are growing. They’re not abating,” he said. “That means people are still using it, and they’re still dying. So if there’s an opportunity to save a life, I think we need to have this discussion and see the direction that we want to go.”

Chitwood recently visited McAllen, Texas, and the southern U.S. border earlier this month — a trip that he said gave him further insight into the fentanyl crisis.

According to Chitwood, illegal substances seized by law enforcement in Marion County were stamped with an insignia belonging to a drug cartel in Reynosa, Mexico. He added that the cartel was illegally operating across the border through McAllen, giving the cartel a “foothold” in Central Florida.

“There’s a direct correlation of fentanyl that’s coming into Central Florida that’s being distributed in Volusia County. It’s being distributed in Flagler, Marion County,” he said. “There’s a shooting in Putnam County that’s connected to the seizure in Marion County, and one of the shooters is a northwest Volusia County resident. So there is connectivity into all these things.”

Chitwood described the drug smuggling operations as an “attack” on Central Florida, saying that the illegal substances coming into the state are being produced in “Super Labs” in Mexico.

The sheriff told News 6 that “precursors” to the drugs are sent from China to Mexico, at which point cartels smuggle the fentanyl into the U.S. before it’s laced into other illegal substances. Chitwood said cartels use a variety of tricks, from smuggling substances into produce coming across the border or floating Pontoon boats loaded with drugs across the Rio Grande.

While Chitwood stated that there was “big money” in the drug side of these operations, he noted that there was another cost involved — human trafficking.

Referencing the recent case in San Antonio where more than 50 migrants died, Chitwood explained that many people are swept up into drug and human-trafficking operations because they may owe money to cartels.

“One of the things we saw at the border was (Border Patrol) had seized several Chinese nationals who were coming into the country, and they were paying $30,000 to the cartel to get in,” he said. “Human smuggling is a big business. (Cartels) don’t lose any money because if you make it into America, they get their money. If you get caught and turned back, they still get their money. And if you die in the back of a truck, they still have their money.”

Chitwood added that a lack of security at the borders is a major factor behind these efforts, stating that the federal government needs to “crack down” on securing the border and address narcoterrorism.

“I don’t understand why this is a partisan issue,” he said. “People are dying. More people die in the United States of drug overdoses than they do of murder or car accidents. But what are we doing?”

While the sheriff’s office may not be able to address the national borders, Chitwood said the department is working to ramp up efforts within the county to stop drug-related crimes and trafficking.

“We’re executing more and more search warrants. We’ve really ramped it up, and part of it is we’re getting so much information now,” he said. “And one of the disturbing trends we’re seeing is a lot of these houses, when we hit them, there are kids, and I mean kids, sometimes 12 and under... in these homes, and there’s fentanyl residue on the table where the kid’s schoolbags are.”

In addition to increased warrants, the department is now investigating every drug-related death as a homicide, Chitwood said. He added that further education and treatment options need to be made available in communities to prevent more deaths.

“You’re not going to save everybody. You’re not going to stop everything,” he said. “But there’s a way to slow this down and drive the numbers down.”

State lawmakers passed SB-1808 earlier this year, which aims to strengthen “immigration enforcement” in Florida and reduce the amount of illegal substances being smuggled into the state.

About the Authors:

Anthony, a graduate of the University of Florida, joined ClickOrlando.com in April 2022.

Molly joined News 6 at the start of 2021, returning home to Central Florida.