CBP has released its enforcement statistics for October (the first month of FY 2021). It shows that seizures of cocaine and fentanyl are up slightly over September (the last month of FY 2020). There is an additional, more interesting statistic that you really have to look for, as well – Border Patrol drug seizures at the border, as opposed to at interior checkpoints. That statistic suggests the border is more porous when it comes to drugs than many imagine.
In October, Border Patrol agents at interior checkpoints nabbed 307 pounds of cocaine, 848 pounds of meth, and 105 pounds of fentanyl. In September, by comparison, Border Patrol agents at those checkpoints apprehended 291 pounds of cocaine, 1,197 pounds of meth, and 102 pounds of fentanyl.
But wait a second, you might note – 1,197 pounds of methamphetamine is more than 848 pounds. You would be right, which brings me to my second point.
In total in October, Border Patrol apprehended 878 pounds of cocaine, 1,388 pounds of meth, and 137 pounds of fentanyl. That means that agents at and near the border itself (as opposed to at interior checkpoints) seized 571 pounds of cocaine, 540 pounds of meth, and 35 pounds of fentanyl. That is more than half a ton of the hardest drugs on the planet.
Interior checkpoint seizures by the Border Patrol are always a source of contention as it relates to smuggling and border-barrier questions, for the following reasons.
In the debate over border barriers, critics often argue that "walls" are not effective because "the vast majority of narcotics enters through U.S. ports of entry, not the wide swaths of border in between where additional barriers could be erected", or some variation thereof.
Well, that is certainly true of drug seizures. In October, CBP officers at the ports seized 10,180 pounds of cocaine, 21,203 pounds of methamphetamine, and 1,075 pounds of fentanyl – far outstripping Border Patrol seizures (I will write about that in my next post). But then, if you have ever entered the United States across a land border, it would not be surprising that such seizures are high.
Every driver (and many passengers) of every vehicle and every pedestrian coming into the United States at one of those ports is questioned by a CBP officer. (I seem to get the extended questioning every time.)
There are drug-sniffing dogs, and paperwork checks. CBP utilizes "large-scale X-ray and Gamma-ray imaging systems, as well as a variety of portable and handheld technologies" to detect contraband on people and in vehicles. I could not imagine a more inhospitable environment for drug smuggling than a port of entry.
It would be like a drug dealer having to walk into a police station before moving product, only ten times worse, because the technology is ten times better at the port than the precinct house.
Compare that, on the other hand, to the border. Agents can question those crossers they apprehend – but they have to apprehend them first. Aliens claiming credible fear want to get caught to apply for asylum and remain indefinitely. Aliens hauling cocaine, meth, and fentanyl could be facing 10 years to life in federal prison (depending on how much they have). And, cartels really don't like to lose their drugs – and are not the sort of employers you would want to disappoint. Smugglers coming across the border, therefore, have every incentive not to get caught by Border Patrol agents.
Not that smugglers at the ports get off easier (or face less wrath from the cartels if caught) – there are just more tools to catch them.
So, are the drugs seized at interior checkpoints simply drugs that were missed at the ports, or were they instead schlepped across the border to a vehicle and transported to the interior where they were found?
There is no way to know for sure (and some drugs are plainly missed at the ports or they would never end up in the United States), but given the fact that most checkpoint questioning is cursory, and Border Patrol agents at checkpoints lack the tools that CBP officers have at the ports, it is more likely to be the latter than the former.
That conclusion is reinforced by the large quantity of drugs seized by the Border Patrol at the border between the ports. More than half of the cocaine, almost 39 percent of the meth, and a quarter of the fentanyl Border Patrol seized last month was at or near the border, as the figures above show. Again, that was seizures – not the sum total of drugs smuggled. We will never know that figure for certain.
Unfortunately, monthly sums of total Border Patrol seizures are not available for preceding years, so I cannot compare October's border seizure totals to September's. But, I can compare last year's checkpoint seizures to Border Patrol seizures as a whole, and it tells a similar (if not even more significant) story.
In FY 2020, Border Patrol seized 2,929 pounds of cocaine, 12,015 pounds of meth, and 405 pounds of fentanyl at checkpoints. In total, the Border Patrol apprehended 15,360 pounds of cocaine, 20,795 pounds of methamphetamine, and 809 pounds of fentanyl. That means more than 80 percent of the cocaine, 42 percent of the meth, and 50 percent of the fentanyl that the component nabbed was at or near the border rather than at the interior checkpoints.
That is not to say that the majority of drugs that are smuggled into the United States don't come through the ports of entry. Even Vice President Mike Pence admitted that (in a roundabout way) in January 2019. But, I also cannot tell you that a significant percentage of the drugs that enter the United States don't enter between the ports – no one can.
CBP officers and Border Patrol agents are good, but not foolproof. And the border is a big place, and agents are stretched thin. There are likely a whole lot more drugs that make it across the border both through and between the ports than we will ever know.
Border barriers are a force multiplier, because they slow down migrants generally and smugglers in particular, giving Border Patrol more time to respond to incursions (nothing is going to stop migrants or contraband bound and determined to enter entirely). Plus, they push more traffic to the ports, where again, there are better detection tools.
Barriers would definitely make the entry of those drugs more difficult – and costly – as smugglers would have to find new and more expensive ways to get their merchandise to market.
Again, though, in the absence of such barriers every place where they are needed, there is some evidence as to how large a quantity of drugs are smuggled along the border between the ports, but seizure numbers likely do not tell the whole story – and successful smugglers aren't telling.