AMU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Drug Trafficking in the US and Why It’s So Hard to Control

As long as customer demand exists, drug trafficking will continue and traffickers will find a way to smuggle drugs into the United States. To gain a deeper understanding of the problem, I conducted research in Central America, South America and the United States.

I specifically looked at the current trafficking methods used to smuggle drugs into the U.S. What I found was border tunnels, chemical concealment, and heavily armed safe houses, all bent toward getting drugs into the United States and all presenting an uphill battle for law enforcement.

Ideally, a focus on intervention and use prevention should be the focus of law enforcement. Without demand, there is no drug trafficking.

Drug Trafficking and the Continued Demand

During the course of my research, I spoke with officials in charge of combating drug trafficking, as well as other people who provided valuable insight into the routes and methods used to traffic illegal drugs into the U.S.

What I learned is that the purity of a drug makes a difference. There’s a strong demand in the U.S. for pure cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. The demand is high because drug traffickers can dilute the drugs (cutting), stretch the original amount­ of the drug (how much of the drug is stretched depends on its purity) and ultimately increase their profits.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Drugs coming into the U.S. are trafficked through multiple means. Traffickers use tunnels, mules, boats and nearly every other transportation method you might imagine (and some you wouldn’t).

However, drugs are also transported to the U.S. in vast quantities through the use of chemical masking. They can be hidden in legal shipments of cargo that pass the southwest border or flown in via aircraft.

According to Customs and Border Protection, over 11 million maritime containers arrive in the United States via seaports each year. Another 11 million arrive via commercial trucks, while 2.7 million arrive by rail.

According to Identec Solutions, it is estimated that only one in 10 shipping containers are checked globally, as containers move quickly through ports via complicated logistics networks. The sheer volume of shipping containers arriving in the U.S. has long been exploited by drug traffickers globally, notes Insight Crime.

Tunnels – which have long had a major role in drug trafficking to the U.S. – are also being used. A current threat involves tunnels that are located along the southwest border along the dividing line between Mexico and Arizona.

There is a lot of attention on tunnels along the California border, but tunnels in New Mexico and Arizona present a better route for drug trafficking. Tunnels are created by workers and small machinery and can be dug in a day, and the managers of these tunnels ensure safe passage for anyone transporting drugs.

Related: The Various Dangers of Gang Life: An Insider’s Perspective

Outlets and Safe Houses

Outlets are essential in trafficking drugs; they are human connections who facilitate trafficking. During my research, I interviewed a former gang member, Keen, who was involved in drug trafficking prior to his incarceration.

Keen explained: “Let’s say someone is smuggling cocaine, heroin and marijuana. The trafficker will go to their outlet and say that if they let the cocaine and heroin through, then they can keep the eighty pounds of marijuana.

“Examples of outlets include someone you can go up to and say I have a thousand dollars and two hundred pounds of pills I need to get through. The guy will look at you and ask what kind of pills.

“An outlet is a connection who does not know all the details of the trafficking route, but will send you to someone who is in the next step of the route. This occurs in case the outlet is caught by law enforcement as they don’t have all the details of the route.”

Safe houses are another important part of drug trafficking. Drug safe houses, compared to human trafficking safe houses, have a greater number of occupants who are armed.

In drug houses, it is common for everyone to have a gun. In a house that is processing drugs smuggled across the southwest border, traffickers typically have workers bagging up drugs. Those workers will be stripped down to their underwear to ensure that they don’t steal the product.

Safe houses can be everywhere. For instance, a safe house could be your next-door neighbor’s house that could evade detection since it looks normal on the outside.

Safe houses are secured through a security system, often using security cameras that monitor the street as far as it can be seen. Cameras are set up on nearby intersections to see who is coming and going.

Drug traffickers prefer to have older neighbors because they don’t bring police attention due to parties or loud music. Reinforced windows, steel doors and burglar bars are common on drug safe houses.

If drugs are being grown within a house, incense is typically burned by the house’s occupants to mask the odor. More commonly, most safe houses used in drug trafficking do not have odors that may alert neighbors or law enforcement because the drugs are concealed in watertight wrappings. Herbs such as pepper trees may be used in the wrapping to conceal any odor to prevent detection.

Related: Human Trafficking: The Perspective of a Former Gang Member

What Can Law Enforcement Do to Be More Effective in Stopping Drug Trafficking?

Law enforcement has the responsibility to combat drug trafficking, but it is a tough job. However, intel gathering is essential in mitigating this crime.

Traffickers are actively gathering information about law enforcement, and drug dealers called “plugs” or outlets warn traffickers of law enforcement operations. As a result, it is essential to law enforcement operations to gather intel against the people involved in drug trafficking.

Plugs may be trusted by law enforcement and may even be members of other government organizations that have insight into law enforcement operations. Operational security in law enforcement and counter narcotics operations is critically important.

Drug trafficking to the U.S. will continue to be a challenge as long as customer demand exists. Transnational criminal organizations are well funded, and they consistently work to find different ways to traffic drugs into the U.S. to meet the demand.

Meaningful rehabilitation for people involved in drug trafficking and using the probation system to refer offenders to substance abuse treatment programs is essential. Implementing programs to prevent the initial use of drugs and intervention programs designed for non-addicted users is also important and may help to reduce overall customer demand for drugs.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. For more information on Jarrod and links to his social media and website, check out

Comments are closed.