When authorities raided the Florida home of Servando Gomez last October, they found hundreds of stolen cigarettes, razor blades and lotions. They also found $10 million worth of prescription drugs, including treatments for heart and skin disorders, that had been stolen from a tractor-trailer truck in Tennessee.
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office
Denis DeCastro, above, and Servando Gomez,
below were charged in Florida with felony
theft of $10 million in prescription drugs.
Detectives accused Mr. Gomez, 48, of leading a crime ring responsible for thefts of medicines and consumer goods as far away as Texas and California. Mr. Gomez and another man charged in the case, Denis DeCastro, 39, have pleaded not guilty; a lawyer for the two men didn't respond to requests for comment.
The Florida case is one symptom of a growing menace to drug makers: Criminal gangs that used to steal laptops and fragrances are increasingly targeting high-value painkillers, drugs for erectile dysfunction, antidepressants and other medications, law-enforcement officials say.
Some of the stolen medicine is sold on the black market in the U.S. and abroad, and an undetermined amount makes its way to U.S. pharmacy and hospital shelves.
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office
For patients, that can be dangerous because some sensitive drugs aren't stored by the thieves in proper conditions. Last year, several diabetes patients lost control of their blood-sugar levels after they unwittingly used stolen insulin, which must be refrigerated.
"Consumers shouldn't be concerned, but they should be alert and aware," said Ilisa Bernstein, director of pharmacy affairs at the Food and Drug Administration.
The past few years have seen a rise in thefts of consumer goods in general. But Medicines in particular have become a popular target for thieves, in part because small volumes can be worth more than bulkier consumer goods.
"It's a growth industry and is becoming highly professionalized," said Katherine Eban, author of "Dangerous Doses," a book about drug theft and counterfeiting in the U.S. "This isn't two-bit addicts leaping over pharmacy counters."
The trend was highlighted this month with the heist of $75 million worth of antidepressants and other pills from an Eli Lilly & Co. warehouse in Connecticut. Industry experts believe it was the biggest theft of its kind.
Bob Reilley, Lilly's chief security officer, said the company had taken steps to ensure the drugs stolen from Connecticut would be identified if they returned to the legitimate drug supply. The company "will learn from this" incident, he said.
The Lilly incident mirrored several other unsolved break-ins, including one at a warehouse owned by drug maker GlaxoSmithKline PLC in Richmond, Va., last year and another several years ago at a Marshfield, Mass., facility owned by drug wholesaler AmerisourceBergen, according to Charles Forsaith, director of supply-chain security for Purdue Pharma L.P. The companies declined to comment.
Last year $184 million worth of prescription drugs were stolen in the U.S., a 350% increase from 2007, according to the U.S. division of FreightWatch International, a supply-chain security consultant.
In Europe, gangs have focused on stealing human-growth hormone, which is sometimes used as a performance-enhancing drug and can be sold to body-builders and athletes on the black market. Drug maker Novo Nordisk A/S said tens of thousands of vials of the drug were taken from two of its Denmark facilities in 2008.
A security expert at one big pharmaceutical company said gangs like prescription drugs because they are easier to transport across borders than narcotics are. "We haven't got sniffer dogs checking out whether your truck is full of Cialis," he said, referring to the impotence drug.
Current and former law-enforcement officials said several rings based in south Florida's Cuban-American community were responsible for most major U.S. heists. Some specialize in tractor-trailer thefts; others target warehouses. These largely nonviolent criminals have separate units devoted to penetrating a building, secreting away the drugs and fencing the items, they said. Ed Petow, a former Miami police officer who specialized in cargo theft, said about 50 to 60 south Floridians carry out most of the U.S. warehouse thefts of items such as electronics and pharmaceuticals.
Criminals can sell the goods to buyers in the black market, through Internet retailers or to drug brokers or wholesalers who can break up the loot and sell it in pieces, officials said.
An unknown portion ends up back in the legitimate market, drug-industry experts and law-enforcement officials said.
"The loosely regulated secondary wholesale market presents an opportunity for unscrupulous" dealers to break the law, said Phillip Eugene Porter, a federal prosecutor who brought a major case in Kansas City in 2006 in which several Midwest-based drug brokers and wholesale distributors pleaded guilty. "It's a 'don't ask, don't tell' market," he said.
Some drug companies said they were beefing up security around their warehouses and outfitting supply trucks with monitoring devices. Others have put global positioning system devices in trucks or imprint drug containers with tracking devices or codes that can be checked at various points in the supply chain.
The insulin stolen last year was taken from a truck that a driver briefly left unattended at his trucking company's North Carolina office. John Sullivan, supply-chain director at Novo Nordisk, which made the insulin, said would-be robbers do a lot of surveillance of industrial parks where its product is stored.
He said the company had installed video cameras at warehouses and checked the background of everyone involved in storing, handling and shipping its products.
Lilly said wholesalers that sold its products must agree to purchase Lilly products directly from the Indianapolis drug maker. Pharmacy benefit managers such as Express Scripts have similar agreements with drug makers and wholesalers.
"It's very difficult for product to get back into the legitimate U.S. supply chain because of these business practices," said Peggy Staver, director of product integrity at Pfizer Inc., which in the U.S. attaches radio-frequency identification tags on bottles, cases and pallets of impotence drug Viagra and on cases and pallets of painkiller Celebrex.