The Myth of the Snap Drug Cartel
hundreds of unsuspecting adolescents have died after buying fentanyl-laced pills on snapchat. grieving parents are demanding action from the company, but will a safer snapchat save our children?
The plan was straightforward: buy a ton of counterfeit pills pressed with fentanyl, and get rich selling them. But it was easier hatched than executed. For starters, how do three guys — combined age 63 years — get access to legit-looking, fentanyl-laced, counterfeit pharmaceuticals? Once they find a source, how do they scrape together enough cash to buy in bulk? And once they have the pills, how do they connect with customers?
Hunter O’Mealy, Caleb Carr, and Matthew Gudino-Pena were undaunted by these barriers to entry. They had the advantage of living in a world of social media, where the natural limits of communication have all gone up in smoke. Having come of age in this world, and so knowing intuitively how to navigate it, the young men from eastern Washington had remarkably little trouble finding a source of fentanyl. Using Snapchat, the trio tracked down a Mexican supplier and arranged an in-person purchase.
Coming up with the cash was a bit more difficult. They drove to the Arizona border penniless but willing to work. Wanting to buy 10,000 fentanyl pills, they had to earn some serious dough. Fortunately for them, there’s good money in smuggling immigrants into the United States. They proved to be competent smugglers, bought the pills, and went back north to get rich. It’s unclear when they started calling themselves the “Fetty Bros,” but now would’ve been as good a time as any. They quickly found they could sell the same way they bought — via Snapchat — and then, finally, distributed pills to an associate named Matthew Holmberg, who sold four of them to a 15-year-old kid in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.
Michael Stabile had supposedly never used drugs before, and had no prior connection to Holmberg; Holmberg found him using Snapchat’s geolocation feature and reached out. Michael considered the offer, talked it over with his friend, and they decided they wanted to see how it felt to take Percocet. They agreed to buy four Percs from Holmberg, who delivered the pills to Michael’s front door. On May 10, 2021, Michael took two of the pills. They contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. Michael’s family found him unresponsive, performed CPR on him until the ambulance arrived, and watched in horror as the paramedics tried and failed to revive him.
After Michael’s death, the DEA opened an investigation, hoping to track down the source of the fentanyl. Their investigation led them to a snapchat username, “Pac.Man2021,” which they eventually traced back to the Fetty Bros. The DEA later learned that, in addition to smuggling illegal immigrants, buying fentanyl from a transnational cartel, and selling laced pills to unsuspecting customers in the Pacific Northwest, the trio distributed fentanyl as far north as Alaska, and as far south as Florida. One of them allegedly told authorities that, when they heard a customer had overdosed, “no one cared.” When they thought — incorrectly — that an acquaintance was cooperating with law enforcement, they tried to kill him. They failed impressively, managing to spray roughly forty rounds at him — likely with a ghost gun made fully automatic using a switch — without a fatal hit. They also threatened to kill an associate who was arrested for possession of Fetty Bro drugs. By the time of their arrest, in October 2021, the Fetty Bros had, through such violence and callousness, amassed a stash of 100,000 fentanyl pills.
Grieving parents. Michael Stabile is not the only adolescent American to die of fentanyl poisoning after purchasing laced, counterfeit prescription pills — usually Percocet, Xanax, or Oxy — over Snapchat. To date, scores of families in dozens of states have experienced the same anguish as Michael’s, and over the past two years many of those families have coalesced into a formidable advocacy group with the help of several nonprofits and law centers, including the Association of People Against Lethal Drugs (APALD), the Partnership for Safe Medicines, and the Social Media Victims Law Center (SMVLC).
By the summer of 2021, the APALD was able to organize a rally outside of Snap’s headquarters. Grieving parents held signs with pictures of their deceased children framed by the slogan “Snapchat is an accomplice to my murder.” These parents have since met with Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, lobbied state legislators, called for section 230 reform, and testified in a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing earlier this year. Perhaps the most outspoken parent has been Amy Neville, who lost her 14-year-old son Alexander to a Snap-involved fentanyl poisoning in 2020. She was among the first to join a class action lawsuit filed by the SMVLC against Snap last October, which alleges that Snap is liable for the deaths of children who purchased fentanyl-laced pills on the platform.
As of January 23, 2023, a total of fifty families are now plaintiffs in an amended version of that lawsuit. Michael Stabile’s parents are among them. The lawsuit is proximately concerned with securing damages for these families as compensation for the trauma they’ve endured. But it also has bigger ambitions, seeking punitive damages to incentivize Snap and other social media companies to make their platforms safer for children. For many of the parents, it seems, that is the real goal here. “It’s a matter of life and death,” Amy Neville told NBC News. “I can’t save Alex, but I have to save these other kids.”
The stakes of the fight against Snapchat, from the perspective of these parents, could not be much higher. Not only have they lost their own children, they’re well-versed in the data on youth fentanyl deaths nationwide. And the data are grim. “After staying flat for a decade, the overdose death rate among U.S. adolescents nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020,” says the lawsuit, and the “reasons do not include a surge of children in this group — ages 14 to 18 — using drugs.” After nearly doubling from 2019 to 2020, the adolescent overdose death rate increased by another 20% in 2021, according to data from the CDC. Fentanyl and fentanyl-laced pills are the primary drivers of this surge in youth overdoses.
According to the DEA, 85 percent of counterfeit pill deaths involve drug traffickers using “common social media platforms.” According to the lawsuit, “platforms” — plural — is misleading, as Snapchat accounts for the “overwhelming majority” of those deaths. Per the SMVLC, adolescent fentanyl poisoning is “a Snap-specific problem,” one birthed by a product tailor-made for dealers to target children, and enabled to spiral by executives who turned a blind eye to the rise of the “Snap Drug Cartel.” Parents like Amy Neville have been led to believe that cracking down on Snapchat will prevent other families from suffering the same fate.
Gauging Snap’s Role. The lawsuit against Snap pins most of the blame on two of Snapchat’s product features: disappearing messages and geolocation. Disappearing messages make the app appealing to children and drug dealers alike — children looking to evade parental oversight, and dealers to evade law enforcement. Geolocation enables drug dealers to find and connect with any young people in a given area who have their location services on. It also enables children to find local dealers, who can post product advertisements — drug menus — on their stories, which dealers know will disappear after 24 hours.
We saw exactly this dynamic play out in the case of Michael Stabile. According to the lawsuit, Michael’s only known connection to the dealer, Matthew Holmberg, was through Snapchat. Holmberg found him using the app’s geolocation feature, presented him with a drug menu, and ultimately delivered the pills straight to Michael’s front door. Based on the available evidence, it seems entirely plausible that but for Snapchat, Michael Stabile — who, again, had supposedly never used drugs before buying from Holmberg — would still be alive.
At the same time, thanks in part to evidence the DEA gleaned from Snapchat, we can now trace the pills that killed Michael back to their source. We know that Holmberg got them from the Fetty Bros, and we know the Fetty Bros got them from a Mexican cartel. The Fetty Bros used Snapchat to arrange purchases from the cartel, and their associates used Snapchat to sell pills. But the Fetty Bros, unlike Michael, were not passively contacted via Snapchat by the cartel. They were determined to buy and sell fentanyl. Snapchat was only their convenient means to that end.
This is where the SMVLC’s story runs into complications. Framing the enemy as a “Snap Drug Cartel” may be useful for winning a lawsuit — and for attracting the attention of the press — but it only serves to muddle reality. Drug dealers use Snapchat; they are not wholly dependent upon it. According to Tim Mackey, who leads a startup that uses AI to track illicit drug sales online, “there are drug sellers on every major social media platform — that includes Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, TikTok and emerging platforms like Discord and Telegram.” He told the New York Times last May that “it’s an entire ecosystem problem: As long as your child is on one of those platforms, they’re going to have the potential to be exposed to drug sellers.” Elaborating on this statement, Mackey told me that “if one platform is proactive in policing and deterring this content, dealers will simply migrate to another.”
If Snapchat were to change in exact accordance with the SMVLC’s demands, an appealing alternative for dealers would be Discord, an app hundreds of dealers are already using, and one that could pose an even more serious challenge to narcotics investigators. A prolific Australian dealer who ran a major Discord drug server told reporters that, “compared to Snapchat, Discord is like another step removed. It’s totally anonymous and incredibly hard to trace back to the user if you use a burner email and fake details.” Further, the article noted, “most drug-related servers are private and invitation-only to prevent users being discovered by authorities.”
There’s already ample evidence, from other contexts, that adolescents are savvy at using Discord to evade unwanted oversight. Joshua Citarella, who’s conducted extensive, immersive research on Gen Z political radicalism in online spaces, has written that “social media was sanitized years ago. Radical discussions no longer take place in publicly visible spaces. Instead, private groups, DMs and chat servers have become the molten core from which all radical takes now erupt.” It does not seem safe, then, to assume that a dealing landscape dominated by Discord instead of Snapchat would be significantly different in terms of access to adolescents.
But it might be different in that law enforcement would have a harder time busting dealers. A blog post on the website of Denver-based criminal defense firm Hebets & McCallin warns potential clients that “Snapchat is a growing source of evidence collection for law enforcement and even a platform for sting operations intended to catch offenders in illegal activity.” A quick Google search backs up the claim, returning many local news stories of Snap-facilitated drug busts. And in 2019, a sergeant in charge of a Utah County Sheriff Office special enforcement team told a local news station that evidence gleaned from social media helped with 90 percent of his drug busts, pointing out that once dealers post a drug menu online (as they often do on Snapchat), “it’s there for everybody to see – including me.”
Misfocus. The fentanyl dealing landscape, then, is roughly as follows: Chinese chemical manufacturers ship fentanyl precursors to Mexico. Mexican cartels manufacture ungodly quantities of fentanyl in covert underground facilities. Each year, more than enough of that fentanyl than would be necessary to kill every single American is smuggled across our southern border. Violent and callous distributors like the Fetty Bros push that fentanyl from the southern border everywhere from Florida to Alaska. They hand laced pills off to lower level dealers, who often use Snapchat to connect with young buyers. Those young buyers, thinking they’re dabbling with prescription medicine, ingest lethal doses of fentanyl, and die in droves.
Potential blame-bearers, then, include Chinese manufacturers and the government in charge of regulating them; Mexican cartels and the government in charge of combating them; drug traffickers like the Fetty Bros; lower-level dealers like Matthew Holmberg; Snapchat; and the American government in charge of ensuring public safety and regulating big tech.
The group of grieving parents-turned-advocates has been focused almost exclusively on the last two parties listed: Snapchat and its federal regulators. Some have lobbied state legislators for stricter punishments for dealers, such as Alexandra’s Law in California, which would have made fentanyl poisoning prosecutable as murder. That bill did not pass, and now most of the energy is reserved for Snapchat. Given their stated goal of keeping other children from succumbing to the same fate as their own, it’s worth considering whether that energy is being put to the best possible use.
We’ve already noted that Snapchat — though an important component of the current fentanyl dealing landscape — is not indispensable for dealers, who have an entire information technology ecosystem at their disposal and can bounce around from one platform to another in response to shifting law enforcement and content moderation policies. It seems likely that companies like Snap could do better at removing obvious drug dealing content and accounts, and at cooperating efficiently with law enforcement. But it’s doubtful that improving platform safety will significantly move the needle on adolescent fentanyl deaths.
Remaining options include combating the flow of fentanyl precursors from China; ramping up the fight against Mexican cartels; securing the southern border; and ramping up the severity and enforcement of laws around domestic fentanyl dealing. Diplomatic relations with China are by now so strained that cooperation on a precursor crackdown is a pipedream. Mexico’s government seems nearly powerless against the cartels, and fighting them directly would effectively require a US military operation. The US has already invested heavily in border security as it relates to fentanyl smuggling, to no avail. We’re left, then, with cracking down on domestic dealing.
Instead of protesting outside of Snap headquarters, parent advocates could be rallying outside of San Francisco’s City Hall, where local leaders recently showed out in support of sanctuary city policies that protect cartel-backed fentanyl dealers. Or outside of the California State Capitol, where lawmakers shot down Alexandra’s Law. Or outside of every state capitol that’s neglected to even consider the passage of laws imposing harsher punishments for dealers peddling lethal fentanyl pills. Or in Washington, D.C., where members of both the House and Senate have proposed a bill that would make fentanyl distribution prosecutable as felony murder.
The grim reality is American life expectancy is dropping, and the fentanyl crisis is largely to blame. Fatal overdoses are, for the first time in our history, rising exponentially among adolescent Americans. Those illicitly manufacturing and distributing the drug are the ones with blood on their hands; platforms like Snapchat are merely tools used in their destructive operations, which are leaving behind a trail of grieving parents. With manufacturers effectively out of reach, dealers like the Fetty Bros should be the primary targets of our collective ire.
It’s not cruel to deport or severely punish those directly responsible for the wave of adolescent overdose deaths haunting our country. It’s cruel to let them off the hook and scapegoat big tech as the bodies pile up.
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Great job on this, Nick.
This one was a punch in the gut. Been to most of those places. Can’t stand the thought of a kid dying like that. Don’t blame the parents but agree it’s misplaced.