Border Disaster Offers Opportunities for Drug Traffickers

A drug surge that should merit an appropriate response from the White House — and CNN

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 3, 2021

In recent posts, I have discussed the deleterious effect that a historically high level of illegal migration at the Southwest border has had on the ability of Border Patrol agents there to prevent the entry of illicit — and deadly — drugs into the United States. Statements by two senior Republican members of Congress and the head of the DEA office in San Antonio show that I am not the only one who sees that this is a problem. But apparently, CNN’s editor-at-large disagrees.

On November 29, Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, spoke to Fox News, complaining that the Biden administration is “not doing anything” to control the flow of illegal drugs over the U.S.-Mexico border.

Katko explained:

One thing cartels know: When the border is secure, it’s much more difficult for them to get the drugs across. When it's not secure, it's a piece of cake for them. And that's what we're seeing now. ... When the president opened up the border last year and allowed people to flow into this country, it was a boon for the cartels.

The ranking member is certainly correct in suggesting that the border is now significantly less secure than it was under Trump.

In September, former Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott sent a letter to Senate leadership in which he explained that “control of our borders has disintegrated overnight” from what had been, in his words, “arguably the most effective border security in our Nation’s history”.

Why had that occurred? Scott asserted that: “Common sense border security recommendations from experienced career professionals are being ignored and stymied by inexperienced political employees”. He also complained that the president’s “team at DHS is laser-focused on expediting the flow of migrants into” the United States.

It is difficult to argue with Scott’s assessment of the decline of border security, or the administration’s role in it.

In response to what then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen termed a “border emergency” in 2019, Trump implemented a number of policies to stem the flow of illegal migrants into the United States, most notably the Migrant Protection Protocols, “MPP”, better known as “Remain in Mexico”.

Under MPP, migrants apprehended entering the United States illegally were sent back across the border to await their removal hearings. That denied them the opportunity to remain in this country while making asylum claims, which in many cases could take years to complete.

From a high of almost 133,000 in May 2019, Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southwest border dropped to fewer than 41,000 just four months later, largely thanks to MPP.

Biden first halted new enrollments in that program shortly after taking office, and then his DHS Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, attempted to terminate MPP in June. Those efforts to kill MPP have been stymied by the courts, as I explained on November 4.

Although the Biden administration has promised that it would restart Remain in Mexico under court order, the Mexican government has been balking — suggesting either that the president’s diplomatic efforts have been half-hearted, or that Biden is not the negotiator his predecessor was. (The Washington Post reported this week that the U.S. and Mexico have reached a deal to restart MPP.)

Returning to drugs, however, Katko tied the president’s lax border policies to the flood of illicit narcotics — and in particular fentanyl — over the Southwest border and a consequent increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States, asserting: “It’s a crisis this administration has created and [Biden’s] not doing anything about it.”

The gentleman from New York is plainly channeling his inner Chief Scott, who argued that the Biden administration is “downplaying the significant vulnerabilities” that its migration policies have created for drug smugglers (among other unsavory characters) “to gain access to our homeland”.

That said, Katko could have done a better job of making his point. He pointed to an uptick in fentanyl seizures at the border to show a lack of security there, but he is not the only one. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who as House Republican Conference chairwoman is number three in GOP leadership in the lower chamber, tweeted on November 29:

That prompted a November 30 response from CNN’s editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza, who contended that “it's a significant logical stretch to cite seizures of drugs as proof that the Biden administration is somehow failing. Because if drug seizures are failures then what does success look like?”

I am not an editor-at-large at a major network, just a simple fellow at a small think tank, but I think that I can help Cillizza understand by reviewing some widely available facts.

One good way to assess the quantity of illegal drugs over the Southwest border is to look at the statistics to which all three (Katko, Cillizza, and Stefanik) referenced, from CBP, on drug seizures there.

In FY 2021, CBP seized 10,586 pounds of fentanyl at the Southwest border — a 132 percent increase over the year before (4,558 pounds). That FY 2020 figure, itself, is 73 percent greater than FY 2019 CBP fentanyl seizures at the international boundary with Mexico (2,633).

Plainly, the quantity of fentanyl entering the United States is on the rise, which likely explains why drug overdose deaths increased 28.5 percent, exceeding 100,000, between April 2020 and this April. The AMA explains that what it terms “the nation’s drug overdose epidemic” is now being “driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms.”

The Wilson Center explains that while fentanyl and its analogues are largely produced in China, “Mexico is becoming a major transit and production point for the drug and its analogues as well, and Mexican traffickers appear to be playing a role in its distribution in the United States.” The CBP statistics show that to be true, and that fentanyl is increasingly being smuggled in from south of the border.

Of course, those CBP statistics don’t — and cannot — reveal how much fentanyl is successfully being smuggled into the United States. If deaths are rising while seizures are also rising, however, the drug must be getting in somehow.

It is important to note that the CBP statistics reflect both drug seizures at the ports — by officers in the agency’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) — and by Border Patrol agents (also in CBP) between the ports. To understand the points made by Reps. Katko and Stefanik, you need to compare the seizure numbers for each.

In FY 2021, OFO officers at the Southwest border seized 9,584 pounds of fentanyl, a 154 percent increase over the prior fiscal year (3,771 pounds).

Last fiscal year, Border Patrol agents there seized 1,002 pounds of fentanyl, compared to 786.4 pounds of the drug the year before — a 27 percent increase. In other words, the increase in the amount of fentanyl seized by OFO between FY 2020 and FY 2021 was 5.7 times the increase in the quantity of the drug seized by Border Patrol agents during the same period.

This raises the question of why Border Patrol seizures increased less than OFO’s. To explain that I refer again to Chief Scott’s statements about the “significant vulnerabilities” that the increase in the migrant flow has created for drug smugglers to exploit.

More illegal migrants were apprehended by Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border in FY 2021 than in any year there in history — more than 1.659 million, a 314-percent increase over FY 2020. By comparison, OFO there apprehended just fewer than 75,500 inadmissible aliens last fiscal year, a much more modest 31 percent jump over its FY 2020 apprehensions at Southwest ports (57,437 aliens).

Border Patrol agents are too busy apprehending, processing, detaining, and caring for that massive wave of illegal migrants to actually patrol the border, which explains why the increase in that component’s seizures of fentanyl between FY 2020 and FY 2021 were significantly lower than OFO’s.

You don’t have to take my word for it. In September, Dante Sorianello, the DEA’s assistant special agent in charge of its San Antonio district office (which has jurisdiction over portions of the Southwest border, including Del Rio and Eagle Pass, Texas) was interviewed by a local ABC affiliate in the Lone Star State.

Sorianello explained that what he termed his “brothers and sisters in the Border Patrol have their hands full with the humanitarian mission that's going on right now with the amount of people,” allowing drugs to flow through gaps along the border — and keeping the DEA in Del Rio and Eagle Pass “extremely busy”.

How busy? In a Fox News report from October 8, Sorianello alluded to the fact DEA agents in the two border towns are “seeing a record amount of fentanyl and methamphetamine”.

That is unusual, because as I noted in a November 2 post, the 1,504 Border Patrol agents in Del Rio sector seized no hard drugs — cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, and meth — at all in the last four months of FY 2021 (June through September), and during that period only stopped four pounds of marijuana from getting through.

Under Cillizza’s logic, that means that drug smuggling in Del Rio sector is at crisis levels — and he would be correct.

That dry period for drug seizures in Del Rio sector occurred at a time that migrant apprehensions there surged, increasing more than 542 percent in FY 2021 (to almost 260,000) from the previous fiscal year (just over 40,000).

June through September were particularly brutal in the Del Rio sector, as agents there apprehended almost 141,000 illegal migrants (54 percent of the yearly total), capped by the convergence of some 15,000 Haitian migrants on the town of Del Rio in mid-September, an incident that made “Del Rio” shorthand for a border in chaos.

Just in case I have not connected all the dots for CNN’s editor-at-large, I have quotes from one more interview with Agent Sorianello, this one from the Fox affiliate in San Antonio, again in October. He explained:

The trafficking groups that smuggle narcotics across the border were trying to surge and push a lot more narcotics into the country because they felt that the checks and balances and security was lessened, due to the immigration issues occurring.

To put a pin in it, he continued: "CBP, Border Patrol. They are the first line of defense for the United States on our borders. It is critical. Without them, doing their jobs, I believe the United States [is] very vulnerable”.

So, why exactly are Katko and Stefanik pointing to an increase in drug seizures at the Southwest border to underscore a lack of border security there? Because those seizures represent a surge in illegal drugs entering the United States, pushed by smugglers seeking to exploit a tsunami of illegal migrants that have left Border Patrol agents shorthanded to stop them.

As the local ABC report explains, “What keeps Sorianello up at night is not the 170 kilos” of meth his DEA agents seized in one two-week period. “It’s the amounts that get through.”

That certainly gives me pause, and it should give Cillizza and Biden pause, too. It should also merit an appropriate response, from both.