NPR Can’t Figure Out Link Between Illicit Drugs and Illegal Migrant Tsunami

Maybe NPR reporters don’t read NPR

By Andrew R. Arthur on August 23, 2022

A recent post examined a poll conducted by Ipsos for NPR, in which a majority of respondents opined — to one degree or another — that there’s an “invasion” occurring at the Southwest border. It’s not unreasonable to look at the tsunami of migrants there and conclude an invasion is occurring, but interestingly NPR also chides respondents to its own poll for believing what it terms a “misleading and false” claim that illegal migrants are smuggling the deadly drug fentanyl. NPR concludes this claim is fallacious, possibly because NPR reporters don’t read NPR. Or maybe NPR’s asking the wrong question.

Poll Results on Fentanyl. That poll, of 1,116 U.S. adults, was conducted between July 28 and 29. It revealed that 39 percent of respondents — including 23 percent of Democrats, 38 percent of Independents, and 60 percent of Republicans — agree with the statement, “Most of the fentanyl entering the U.S. is smuggled in by unauthorized migrants crossing the border illegally”.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s start with fentanyl and why it’s a hot topic. In November, the CDC reported that drug overdose deaths in the United States were up 28.5 percent in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, to over 100,000.

Roughly 75,000 of those deaths were attributable to opioids, with fentanyl — a synthetic opioid — leading the way. That’s because fentanyl is uniquely deadly — up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. And, as the CDC explains: “It is often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency, which makes drugs cheaper, more powerful, more addictive, and more dangerous.”

According to the DEA, most of the illicit fentanyl in the U.S. drug market is “manufactured in foreign clandestine labs and smuggled into the United States through Mexico”. Which brings NPR to the question of how it gets over the border.

NPR asserts:

It's true that fentanyl overdose deaths are up in recent years, and that much of the U.S. fentanyl supply is smuggled through the border.

But experts say the vast majority of fentanyl and other illegal drugs are smuggled through official ports of entry, hidden in large trucks and passenger vehicles, while a relatively small amount is smuggled by cartels across the border between those ports.

Virtually none is smuggled by migrants themselves, says Victor Manjarrez, Jr., a former Border Patrol sector chief who's now a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

As you likely already know, you should never blindly trust blanket statements like “experts say”. I am an “expert” with more than 30 years of high-level experience in immigration and border issues, but unlike NPR I try to avoid sweeping generalizations.

Drugs at the Southwest Border. CBP publishes its drug seizure statistics on its website. Between CBP officers at the ports and Border Patrol agents between the ports at the Southwest border, the agency has stopped 231,000 pounds of illicit drugs total in the 10 reporting months of FY 2022. Extrapolating that out, CBP is on pace to seize 277,200 pounds of drugs this fiscal year.

That’s a significant decline from recent years. Total Southwest border drug seizures totaled 442,000 pounds in FY 2021, itself a decrease from FY 2020 (707,000 pounds) and FY 2019 (685,000 pounds). That should be a red flag, because overdose deaths are up, while seizures are down.

Focusing just on fentanyl tells a slightly different story. CBP stopped 10,100 pounds of the opioid since the beginning of October and is on track to seize 12,120 pounds of fentanyl in FY 2022.

That’s up from the 10,600 pounds of fentanyl stopped at the Southwest border in FY 2021, 4,600 pounds in FY 2020, and 2,600 pounds in FY 2019.

That increase in border fentanyl seizures is likely due to a shift in the illicit foreign sources of the drug. As a bipartisan federal panel tasked with investigating synthetic opioid trafficking reported in February:

Since 2014, when illegal synthetic opioids began their rapid expansion in the United States, their source has evolved. From about 2014 until 2019, 70 to 80 percent of the pure fentanyl and fentanyl analogues that federal authorities seized came from foreign suppliers in the [People’s Republic of China (PRC)]. They relied on the internet to sell their drugs and on the international mail and parcel delivery systems to ship their products to the United States.

Since then, the dominant source of illegally sourced fentanyl has been Mexico. The drug is manufactured in illegal laboratories there using precursors from Asia — mainly the PRC — and is trafficked principally by land into the United States.

Fentanyl Smuggling at and Between the Ports. NPR’s premise is that the drug is coming through the ports, and CBP officers have apprehended 8,500 pounds of fentanyl at the Southwest border ports this year, which extrapolated out would represent a less than a 6 percent increase over FY 2021 — 10,200 pounds in FY 2022 compared to 9,600 pounds in FY 2021.

Compare that, however, to Border Patrol fentanyl seizures at the Southwest border. In FY 2022, agents have already stopped 1,500 pounds of the stuff, which would equate to 1,800 pounds over a 12-month period. That’s 80 percent more than their total fentanyl seizures in FY 2021 (1,000 pounds).

Thus, it is apparent that cartels and smugglers are running more fentanyl across the border between the ports than they have in the immediate past. Again, however, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Border Patrol set a new annual record for migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico line in FY 2021 (1.659 million), but broke that record in just the first 10 months of FY 2022 (1.816 million).

Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border are so busy rounding up, transporting, processing, and caring for “give-ups” — aliens surrendering in the (reasonable) expectation that they will be released into the United States — that on parts of the border just 30 percent of agents are “on the line” stopping aliens who don’t want to be caught (“got-aways”) and drugs and other contraband from entering.

That’s why an estimated half-million got-aways have successfully evaded apprehension thus far in FY 2022, up from just over 389,000 in all of FY 2021 and a significant increase from earlier years.

You don’t have to believe me about overworked Border Patrol agents who aren’t able to do their other jobs. Consider the following October report from a national news outlet on the situation at the border:

The record number of apprehensions is taking a toll on border communities — and on morale inside the Border Patrol.

"I've never seen it as bad as what it is right now," said Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents Border Patrol agents. Agents spend hours handling paperwork for migrants who are allowed into the country to ask for asylum, Judd said in an interview. And that's distracting them from trying to stop smugglers from bringing drugs and other contraband into the U.S.

"We just don't have the manpower and resources to do what we need to do to both detect and apprehend everything that's crossing the border," he said. [Emphasis added.]

The source of that report? NPR.

For what it’s worth, you also don’t have to rely on my statistical analysis to conclude fentanyl is increasingly being smuggled between the ports by cartels and smugglers who are exploiting overwhelmed Border Patrol agents. In June 2021, NBC News, dateline El Paso, Texas, reported:

Federal agents in this section of the southern border say they’ve seen a staggering 4,000 percent increase in fentanyl seizures over the last three years.

Those busts are not at ports of entry, where most smuggled drugs are typically found. The Border Patrol says the rising amount of fentanyl is being found in the desert — transported by increasingly brazen smugglers who are exploiting stretched federal resources.

Are Migrants Smuggling Fentanyl? So, if fentanyl is increasingly being brought illegally between the ports of entry, who’s bringing it? As noted, NPR quotes “Victor Manjarrez, Jr., a former Border Patrol sector chief”, who asserted: “Virtually none is smuggled by migrants themselves”.

I do not know Chief Manjarrez, but his LinkedIn profile states that he “served for more than 20 years in the United States Border Patrol”, last serving as the “Chief Patrol Agent of the Tucson Sector” in May 2011.

He has not been with Border Patrol or the federal government since but is currently the director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), where one of his areas of study is “homeland security enterprise” with research topics including “border security system assessments”.

He is plainly an authority on the border, but even experts can disagree. Consider for example the following report that was issued in December 2011, seven months or so after Manjarrez left CBP:

Mexican drug cartels have found a new source of labor to backpack marijuana into the United States: illegal immigrants.

Federal agents, prosecutors, defense attorneys and migrants themselves say that traffickers have begun recruiting undocumented immigrants at the border, both voluntarily and forcibly. Now, U.S. courts along the border have to decide what to do with terrified immigrants who come before them and say, "The cartel made me do it."

The source of that report? NPR.

Or consider an October 2021 article in the Washington Post captioned “The child migrant smugglers of Northern Mexico”. It explains how youths aged 18 and younger are “valuable tools for the criminal groups that control the” human smuggling trade because DOJ doesn’t prosecute minors for that offense. The paper notes, however:

The work comes with an expiration date. When the boys turn 18, they’re no longer insulated from prosecution. If they’re caught ferrying migrants across the border as adults, they can be sent to a U.S. prison for a decade.

That’s when the cartels steer them toward a new role. As the boys approach their 18th birthdays, the groups recruit them for more dangerous work — as drug traffickers, for example.

Or consider the following, from a March 2018 paper published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science:

Reports of migrants being forced by drug traffickers to carry backpacks stuffed with drugs across the border ... have been increasingly documented by researchers over the last few years. These testimonies suggest that the practice is widespread and increasing along the border, and have been used to support of the argument that drug trafficking and migrant smuggling have converged.


In our study, respondents’ testimonies indicated that the decision to carry drugs often was a personal, complex choice, rather than the result of coercion. Lacking financial resources to cover basic needs like room or board, or having run out of money after traveling vast distances and no longer able to afford smuggling fees, some migrants opted to assist drug traffickers in exchange for financial compensation or transportation within the United States.

Or the June 2021 NBC News piece, cited above, which also states:

“For the first time, we’re starting to see these tactics where fentanyl is being smuggled between ports of entry,” Chief Border Patrol Agent Gloria Chavez said in an interview. “Cartels are very creative. They find ways to intimidate migrants and find ways to illegally have them transport that narcotic into the United States.” [Emphasis added.]

NPR’s Asking the Wrong Question. Respectfully, however, NPR is just asking the wrong question, because the evidence is clear that there is a significant nexus between the massive increase in illegal migrants under the Biden administration and the surge of fentanyl between the ports and into the country.

The LinkedIn page for Rodney Scott states that he was the national chief of the Border Patrol until August 2021, and served in DHS for more than 30 years. The month after he retired, Chief Scott sent a letter to Senate leadership warning about vulnerabilities at the Southwest border.

In that letter, the chief explained that due to policy decisions made by the Biden administration, “control of our borders has disintegrated overnight. While the sheer volume of aliens is overwhelming it is critical that policy makers understand that these mass incursions are not simply an immigration issue”. Scott continued:

[I]llegal entries are being scripted and controlled by Plaza Bosses that work directly for the transnational criminal organizations (TCO) to create controllable gaps in border security. These gaps are then exploited to easily smuggle contraband, criminals, or even potential terrorists into the U.S. at will. Even when [Border Patrol] detects the illegal entry, agents are spread so thin that they often lack the capability to make a timely interdiction.

Looking at CBP’s drug seizure numbers, the most logical conclusion is that drug seizures at the ports — where interdiction is much easier than at the border — are down because the cartels and smugglers know that the odds of success between the ports are better due to the fact that, as Scott explained, “agents are spread so thin”.

I’ll assume that NPR and Ipsos didn’t phrase the fentanyl question to set poll respondents up for what they would later term failure. Americans understand there’s a nexus between the record numbers of illegal entrants and the surge in opioid deaths, even if they aren’t clear on the mechanics of the system. It would be helpful, however, if that outlet informed the citizens who provide part of its funding instead of scoring cheap political points.