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Prosecutors charge man with selling suicide drug after some buyers found dead

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(The Center Square) – A federal grand jury indicted a Mexican man on drug charges for allegedly illegally importing the drug pentobarbital into the United States from Mexico for use in committing suicide – in some cases, authorities found the people who had bought the drug were dead.

Pentobarbital is a short-acting barbiturate rarely used outside of hospitals. The drug is used in animal euthanasia, assisted suicide and some U.S. executions.

Chicago-based prosecutors charged Daniel Gonzalez-Munguia, also known as “Alejandro Vasquez,” 40, of Puebla, Mexico, with importing and distributing a controlled substance. If convicted, he could face up to 60 years in federal prison.

Gonzalez-Munguia is in U.S. custody, but an arraignment date in federal court in Chicago has not yet been scheduled.

Homeland Security Investigations had been looking into the smuggling of suicide drugs since March 2016 after finding pentobarbital in an intercepted package from Mexico that contained two pre-packaged, 100 milliliter medicine bottles, each labelled as “pentobarbital sodium” sold under the trade name “Pisabental.” Pentobarbital is sold commercially in Mexico for euthanizing animals. The intercepted package, which also contained the anti-nausea medicine metoclopramide, was headed to a hotel in Libertyville, Illinois, about 50 miles from Chicago.

Agents tracked down the man in the hotel room. He told agents he was depressed after his wife told him she wanted to divorce and police served him with an order of protection from his wife. He said that he had ordered a suicide manual online. The man, who was not identified in the indictment, told agents he no longer wanted to commit suicide. The suicide manual contained a Yahoo! email address for a person who could provide drugs for suicide. The man at the hotel, a licensed pharmacist, had emailed the Yahoo! address seeking pentobarbital. He eventually wired $644 to Mexico for two bottles of pentobarbital, according to the indictment.

Investigators later linked the Yahoo! address to Gonzalez-Munguia.

In one email exchange with the Yahoo! address, the despondent man in the hotel was told the amount was “enough to reliably get a peaceful exit for two people.”

Another email was more specific: “The product is drinkable, not injectable despite it says injectable in the bottle, remember that this product is made for animals mainly. Take 2 pills each 12 hours before the day you are planning to drink the product, then 2 more pills half hour before, mix the content in orange juice or even an alcoholic drink and drink all at once. The effect takes 20 minutes to 30 minutes and you will feel sleepy, this is the only effect you will feel in your body. Please erase all emails between you and me and dispose the bottles at a safe place.”

Prosecutors said Gonzalez-Munguia operated an online business to sell pentobarbital to people in the U.S. and throughout the world who were contemplating suicide.

During the investigation, law enforcement located mail parcels that appear to have been shipped out of Mexico by Gonzalez-Munguia. Authorities in the U.S. and several foreign countries conducted well-being checks and recovered pentobarbital from people who admitted to being despondent and ordering the suicide drug online from email addresses operated by Gonzalez-Munguia, according to the indictment and a criminal complaint previously filed in the case. Law enforcement offered assistance to those people. In other instances, people who bought pentobarbital via the email addresses were found dead, including people in the Chicago area and several other states and countries, according to the indictment.

A 29-year-old from California who paid $700 for three bottles of pentobarbital was later found dead in a hotel room in La Mesa, California, in April 2016. The cause of death remains under investigation, according to the indictment. However, a search recovered a handwritten note bearing the name “Daniel Gonzalez-Munguia” and a blank Western Union form.

A 52-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, who paid $720 for three bottles, was found dead in 2015. The Boulder County Coroner’s Office ruled the person had committed suicide and found the cause of death to be an overdose of pentobarbital, according to the indictment.

Undercover agents later bought pentobarbital directly from Gonzalez-Munguia.

Pentobarbital is a Schedule II drug in the U.S. It has turned up other drug smuggling activities and is sometimes marketed as illicit drugs such as fentanyl. In 2021, the American Veterinary Medical Association reported a shortage of pentobarbital in 2021, advising members about alternatives at the time. The drug has also been used in executions. Most U.S. executions previously relied on a three-drug cocktail for executions, but when those drugs became difficult to obtain, several states switched to a single drug: Pentobarbital. When former U.S. Attorney General William Barr brought back the death penalty in 2019, the plan was for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to use pentobarbital, according to The BMJ, a medical journal and federal records.

Authorities have found pentobarbital in other smuggling operations. In 2019, a U.S. Coast Guard team boarded a boat off the coast of Oregon and found 28 seven-gallon jugs containing liquid methamphetamine along with plastic-wrapped bricks of pentobarbital, according to court records and Coast Guard reports.

Earlier this year, DEA agents found 11 pounds of pentobarbital they busted a cartel-linked illicit drug operation in Texas. In that case, the dealers marketed the short-acting barbiturate pentobarbital as heroin, according to a DEA spokesperson. Agents seized other more common illicit drugs in larger quantities during the multi-year investigation. Among them: 1,212 pounds of meth, 548 pounds of cocaine, 74 pounds of heroin, and 22,600 fentanyl-laced pills. The spokesperson said the seizure of pentobarbital was “uncommon.”

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available 24/7 by phone and online.

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