Federal agents had been buying lots of drugs in undercover operations, trying to trace the pipeline of methamphetamine and fentanyl into St. George, Utah, a sleepy city of retirees, out-of-town hikers and Mormon churches. Brady Wilson, one of two Drug Enforcement Administration agents in southern Utah, begged for more cash in what seemed like a big case — a window into how Mexican organized crime had penetrated the suburbs. A Mexican cartel, he suspected, had set up shop in St. George. Few places would make a more incongruous outpost for Mexican drug traffickers, reports the Washington Post. Yet synthetic drugs had arrived here much as they had in other small cities and rural areas, abruptly and with immediate, devastating impact. In Utah, fentanyl overdose deaths increased 300 percent over a three-year period, killing 170 people in 2021.
Mexican criminal groups had become experts in producing fentanyl and meth. Now, they were honing their role in retail distribution in the U.S., where synthetics had reshaped the geography of drug demand. There was money to be made in places like St. George. Wilson learned from an informant in 2020 that a Mexican man was running a drug distribution ring from a small ranch on the edge of St. George. Wilson and other law enforcement officials conducted stakeouts in strip-mall parking lots. They interviewed detained drug dealers. They weren’t getting enough evidence to advance the case. Last year, they traced a shipment of drugs to Ángel Rubio Quintana, a 41-year-old from Michoacán, Mexico. Deported years earlier, he had returned to southern Utah, where his relatives had a popular fast-food restaurant. The man suspected of importing drugs into St. George had moved his family into an immaculate suburb, on a street lined with American flags and pickups. The first time agents purchased a large load of meth from Rubio, it arrived in a five-pound tub of sour cream. The investigation was dubbed Operation Sour Cream. More Americans are dying of drug overdoses than ever before. The tentacles of Mexican criminal organizations are lengthening in the U.S., their distribution methods becoming more efficient as their drugs become more dangerous.