Drug Busts Are Up – a Lot – at the Ports of Entry

Bad news and good news – but the good news may not last

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 27, 2020

In my last post, I wrote about an increase in seizures of cocaine and fentanyl by the Border Patrol in October. Equally (if not more) impressive, however, are the increases in seizures of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl by CBP officers at the ports of entry in October. They are way up. There are many factors that likely led to the increase in seizures at the ports, but two – increased demand and decreased traffic at the border (allowing more thorough searches) – lead the way. The latter may not last.

Specifically, in October, CBP officers seized 10,180 pounds of cocaine, 1,403 pounds of heroin, 21,203 pounds of meth, and 1,075 pounds of fentanyl. By way of comparison, in all of FY 2020 (which ended in September), CBP officers apprehended 42,645 pounds of cocaine, 5,222 pounds of heroin, 156,901 pounds of methamphetamine, and 3,967 pounds of fentanyl.

That means that, in one month, CBP officers prevented the entry of almost 24 percent as much cocaine last month as they did in the previous fiscal year, almost 27 percent of the heroin, 13.5 percent of the meth, and 27 percent of the fentanyl as in all of FY 2020.

If these trends stand, CBP officers will apprehend 121,296 pounds of cocaine, 16,836 pounds of heroin, 254,436 pounds of methamphetamine, and 12,900 pounds of fentanyl in FY 2021. A big "if", as I will explain below.

All of these drugs are serious, but the heroin and fentanyl seizures are particularly troubling. I have seen first-hand the carnage and destruction that those drugs have wrought in my erstwhile hometown of Baltimore.

There is even a term for it – the "Baltimore lean", where those high on either or both of the drugs stagger in a crouch down the street, or recline unmoving up against a door frame or wall. You can check it out – if you have the stomach – in this March 2017 video from the New York Daily News. By way of reference, the spot where that video was taken is a block from the federal courthouse, and five blocks from Camden Yards. I saw it every day I drove through the city.

According to the most recent reporting from the National Institutes of Health, 14,996 Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2018, and according to NIH, the increase in deaths involving heroin since 2014 "is driven by the use of fentanyl". Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids – such as fentanyl and its analogs – rose to 31,335 in 2018.

And, little wonder – fentanyl is a deadly drug, "50 to 100 times more potent than morphine" according to the CDC. Two milligrams is a deadly dose for most people according to the DEA, meaning that the 1,075 pounds of fentanyl seized by CBPOs in October could kill 243,805,700 – or about 74 percent of the U.S. population.

Why the increase? Demand is certainly a factor. In September, Baptist Health of South Florida reported on a survey that revealed of 1,000 American adults (age 18 and older) surveyed, 36 percent reported an increase in illicit drug use in the past month. Of those who had increased their drinking or drug use, 53 percent "were trying to cope with stress", 39 percent "were trying to relieve boredom", and 32 percent "were trying to cope with mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depression." That is the bad news – and likely to get worse as shutdowns increase.

Here is the good news: In my opinion (and I do have some expertise in the subject), CBP is in a better position to identify smugglers. Some of that has to do with improved technology at the ports of entry. (DHS has been doing some significant work on this front.)

But likely a lot more of it has to do with the fact that (as my colleague David North detailed in September), arriving border crossers at the five largest ports on the southern border were down to 47.9 percent of normal in June and July 2020 as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

This is not to say that drugs do not enter the United States from Canada (as at least one recent cocaine and meth seizure suggests). It is just that more drugs come across the Southwest border. In its most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, for example, DEA noted that Mexican transnational criminal organizations (cartels) "remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States; no other groups are currently positioned to challenge them."

Looking at more recent numbers from the Department of Transportation tells a similar story to that detailed by North. I limited my search to bus passengers, pedestrians, personal vehicle passengers, train passengers, trucks, and loaded truck containers. I omitted buses themselves, empty containers, and trains – not that they are not subject to search, but are either easier to search (buses and empty containers) or require unique search techniques by specially trained CBP officers (trains).

Here are the statistics from August: El Paso (Tex.), 819,158; Hidalgo (Tex.), 506,224; Laredo (Tex.), 873,163; Otay Mesa (Cal.), 979,314; and San Ysidro (Cal.), 1,735,714.

The same statistics for the same month in 2019: El Paso, 2,324,917; Hidalgo, 922,913; Laredo, 1,704,934; Otay Mesa, 1,373,452; San Ysidro, 3,242,934.

Thus, the year-to-year numbers were down just under 65 percent in El Paso, 45 percent in Hidalgo, just under 49 percent in Laredo, just under 29 percent in Otay Mesa, and 47.5 percent in San Ysidro.

As a decline in illegal migrants enables Border Patrol to seize drugs, a limitation in the flow of cross-border traffic would (logically and empirically) give CBP officers more time to do a more thorough search of persons and vehicles entering the country.

So, there is good news and bad news in the most recent CBP reporting on drugs. More drugs are likely coming into the United States to fuel a pandemic-driven demand. But, CBP (at least for now) has more capacity to stop them.

It remains to be seen what president-elect Joe Biden will do with respect to the current Trump administration border lockdowns. He has vowed to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or "Remain in Mexico"). The Migration Policy Institute has recently stated that there were 24,500 pending MPP cases as of September, and presumably Biden would allow each of the foreign nationals in those cases (there may be more than one per case) into the United States.

What exactly the former vice president would do with respect to expulsions of aliens entering illegally or without proper documents under Title 42 (which I explained in depth in a May post) remains to be seen. Biden has promised an "urgent, robust, and professional response to the growing public health and economic crisis caused by the" COVID-19 outbreak, but it is not clear how that would square with his vow to "restore our asylum laws so that they do what they should be designed to do – protect people fleeing persecution and who cannot return home safely."

The travel limitation agreements with Canada and Mexico would likely remain in place, but it is difficult to see how Biden's asylum promises would not result in a boom in illegal entries (I note that they have already increased from 17,106 in April to 69,237 in October, according to CBP).

There would almost definitely be a massive surge in unaccompanied alien children (UACs) and adults entering illegally with children (family units or FMUs). Most of the aliens who entered in October were single adults, reversing recent trends. Given the loopholes that draw UACs and FMUs to the United States – and the fact that Biden has no plan to close those loopholes – the conditions are ripe for another swell.

There is still insufficient space to process an increase in UACs and FMUs in Border Patrol processing centers, and with the pandemic raging, a large number of unscreened aliens could not be released into the United States without the risk of spread into the interior.

If a UAC and FMU surge happens, CBP officers and Border Patrol agents would again be pulled off of the line to care for FMUs and (especially) UACs. A bipartisan panel reported in April 2019 – near the height of the last surge – that:

On any given day, CBP is at half strength or less "on the line" in places at the border, endangering themselves and the country. Turned on its head, CBP personnel are instead tending to the daily needs of thousands of illegal migrants who CBP has already processed but is left holding for days and sometimes weeks in confinement space that was built decades ago and designed to confine only a fraction of these illegal migrants for hours, not days or weeks, and certainly not intended to confine tender age children. One of the highest priorities must be to immediately relieve CBP of all tasks unrelated to its law enforcement mission. The security of our country is at grave risk until then.

Those Mexican smuggling cartels are likely building a flood of such migrants into their business plans.

In short, drug demand is up, likely driving efforts by cartels to smuggle drugs into the United States. For the time being, though, CBP has increased capacity to detect and stop smugglers at the southern ports of entry. Whether that remains true largely depends on the policies of the new president come January 20.