By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
There is an ongoing opiate crisis in the United States. Addiction rates and overdose deaths have been skyrocketing over the past few years, and few in law enforcement or elected office know what to do about it. President Trump has acknowledged this crisis, and believes that expanding the existing border fence is the solution to stopping opiates like heroin and fentanyl from entering the country from Mexico. Unfortunately, there are several reasons why more border fence will do nothing to slow down the illegal movement of opiates into the United States.
For the purposes of this analysis, the focus will be on fentanyl. This is a synthetic opiate that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and is more commonly being found laced in with heroin, cocaine, and other illegal drugs. The chemical was first developed in 1960 as a powerful painkiller in surgery and aesthetic, and the drug traffickers started realizing its potential a little over a decade ago. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the first major wave of illicit fentanyl-laced heroin hit the U.S. around 2005 and 2006. Now it’s taking over the illegal drug market.
Fentanyl: Biggest Drug Threat to America
Fentanyl is currently considered to be the top illegal drug threat to the United States because of it’s often lethal and extremely addictive. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of deaths involving heroin in combination with synthetic narcotics has been increasing steadily since 2014, and shows that the increase in deaths involving heroin is driven by the use of fentanyl. Among the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2017, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, with more than 28,400 overdose deaths. The drug is so lethal because the equivalent of a few grains of sand can result in an overdose.
Also by Sylvia Longmire: History Casts Doubt on Potential Effectiveness of Trump’s Border Wall
U.S. authorities are gravely aware of this drug threat, but are still struggling to determine exactly how and where it is manufactured and transported. That being said, current law enforcement intelligence and recent drug seizures provide valuable information to indicate that the vast majority of fentanyl is being smuggled into the United States through either the U.S. Postal Service or ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.
China’s Role In Producing Illegal Drugs
The chemicals used to create fentanyl are largely manufactured in China. Chinese authorities have not publicly acknowledged this, but they have taken some action to attempt to reduce the fentanyl problem. According to the BBC, China has now restricted more than 150 chemicals that can be used to create synthetic drugs. However, the Chinese government’s regulatory capacity is limited by government inefficiency and increased opportunities for corruption. Another problem is that as more controls are introduced, new chemical substances are produced to get around those controls.
Fentanyl In The Mailbox
The first way that fentanyl enters the United States is by mail. Drug users and dealers based in the U.S. can purchase small quantities of fentanyl through the dark web. This is something of a secret layer of the Internet that is often used for illicit purposes. These packages are small and inconspicuous, and since labeling and inspection standards aren’t as strict for the Postal Service as they are for courier companies like UPS and FedEx, many packages go unnoticed. While it’s difficult to know just how much fentanyl is coming direct from China to the U.S., past investigations show it’s likely on a large scale.
Fentanyl From Mexico
The second smuggling pipeline for fentanyl comes from Mexico, where cartels receive shipments of fentanyl from China, then frequently use it to cut, or dilute, their existing drug supply. There is little dispute that most fentanyl smuggling is controlled by the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco cartel. Much of the fentanyl is destined for San Diego, and is crossed in cars, semi-trucks, or by pedestrians at the port of entry. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, in fiscal year 2017, Customs and Border Protection seized 355 kg of fentanyl at San Diego ports of entry, accounting for 82 percent of all border crossing seizures nationwide.
CBP statistics support the theory that the majority of fentanyl brought to the U.S. from Mexico is coming through the ports of entry. From fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017, fentanyl seizures at ports of entry increased from 440 pounds to 1,196 pounds. Seizures for fiscal year 2018 through July 31 numbered 1,357 pounds. However, Border Patrol agents only seized 181 pounds of fentanyl in fiscal year 2017 between the ports of entry. Border Patrol fentanyl seizures for fiscal year 2018 through July 31 numbered 332 pounds.
‘Small Percentage’ Crosses Border
During his Feb. 15 declaration of a national emergency related to the southwest border, President Trump stated, “When you look and when you listen to politicians – particular certain Democrats – they say it all comes through the port of entry. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s just a lie.” Aside from CBP statistics that contradict this statement, Trump’s former Chief of Staff John Kelly testified before Congress in 2017 (when he was the Secretary of Homeland Security) that most drugs come through ports of entry. Paul Beeson of CBP testified that same year that ports are “the major points of entry for illegal drugs.” The DEA’s most recent national drug threat assessment indicates that only a “small percentage” of heroin that crosses the border is seized between ports of entry.
While it seems clear that additional border fencing would do little to stop fentanyl from entering the United States from Mexico through ports of entry, it’s even more clear that it would do absolutely nothing to stop shipments coming by mail from China. President Trump has acknowledged this problem in the past, and even signed legislation to close loopholes on these kind of illegal shipments, further contradicting his current stance that most fentanyl is being smuggled in between the ports of entry.
In January 2018, two senators released a report from the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations detailing how the Chinese use the mail to send fentanyl into the United States undetected. To stop them, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention act in June 2018 that would bring U.S. Postal Service regulations in line with private counterparts. In August 2018, Trump tweeted, “It is outrageous that poisonous synthetic heroin fentanyl comes pouring into the U.S. postal system from China. We can, and must, END THIS NOW! The Senate should pass the STOP ACT – and firmly stop this poison from killing our children and destroying our country. No more delay!” Trump signed the Act in October 2018.
Although President Trump is drawing a picture of fentanyl smuggling into the U.S. from Mexico in places where his plans for expanded border fencing would ostensibly stop it, statistics and testimony from his own government agencies continue to demonstrate that his border fence claims with regards to fentanyl smuggling are not based on factual evidence.