SAN FRANCISCO—The married couple living in the third-floor, ocean-view apartment were friendly and ambitious. She explored the city, posting selfies on Facebook. He started a small music label at home.
“They were nice people,” said Ann McGlenon, their former landlady. “She’s very sweet. He’s a go-getter.”
Authorities say Candelaria Vazquez and Kia Zolfaghari had darker aspirations. Working from unit 6, the pair built a small enterprise making counterfeit prescription pills, the Drug Enforcement Administration says. They designed pills to resemble legitimate oxycodone tablets, with an important, and potentially dangerous, twist, according to the DEA: Instead of oxycodone, they used the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl as a main ingredient.
Mr. Zolfaghari worked a pill-press machine in their two-bedroom, 1,100 square-foot apartment, the DEA said, where they also kept an action figure of Walter White, the protagonist of the series “Breaking Bad,” in which a high-school chemistry teacher cooks up batches of methamphetamine.
According to a DEA affidavit, the couple sold the pills to buyers around the U.S., including in Washington state and North Carolina. A federal grand jury in San Francisco indicted them on June 21 on charges including conspiracy to manufacture and distribute fentanyl.
Small-scale drug labs are cropping up around the country, as budding home-brew traffickers discover how easy it is to manufacture pills using synthetic opioids to meet skyrocketing demand. Law enforcement says the phenomenon threatens to atomize the illicit narcotics trade, adding a troubling new dimension for authorities already strained trying to halt larger-scale drug gangs.
Abuse of opioids, including prescription drugs, heroin and synthetic narcotics like fentanyl, has reached crisis proportions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 28,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2014, the last year of nationwide data, more than double the total from a decade earlier.