Tucson Sector: A Case Study in Border Patrol Fentanyl Seizures

Agents there are dealing with fewer migrants, and thus able to stop more drugs

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 17, 2023

There is a curious phenomenon playing out at the Southwest border, as Tucson — one of the slower Border Patrol sectors for migrant apprehensions — accounted for nearly 94 percent of the agency’s fentanyl seizures in November. Those agents have advantages that their colleagues elsewhere don’t — and are seemingly making the most of them to slow the deadly drug flow.

Tucson Sector, in Context. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector has responsibility for 262 miles of the Southwest border, from the New Mexico state line in the east to the Yuma County line in the west. It also has the largest staff — with a cadre of about 3,700 agents — of the Border Patrol’s nine Southwest border sectors.

In the first two months of FY 2023 (October and November), those agents have apprehended just over 46,000 illegal migrants — a rate of 757.5 per day. That’s up from the 690 migrants per day whom agents in Tucson Sector apprehended in FY 2022, though monthly apprehensions in the sector have been fairly steady since hitting a high of more than 27,000 in March.

October apprehensions there were 19.5 percent higher than in the same month a year before, while November’s total was 8 percent higher.

Compare that to Yuma Sector, which sits directly to the west. Agent staffing there is less than a quarter what it is in Tucson sector (there were 784 Yuma agents at the end of FY 2020, the last year for which statistics are available), but Yuma is responsible for only about half as much of the border (126 miles, from the Pima County line to California’s Imperial Sand Dunes).

Yuma Border Patrol agents apprehended just over 310,000 illegal entrants in FY 2022 (at an average of 849.5 per day, 23 percent more on a yearly average than Tucson), and in the first two months of FY 2023, they made nearly 50,000 apprehensions (about 817 per day).

Thus, Yuma Sector has fewer agents than Tucson Sector, directly to the east, and the Yuma agents are dealing with more migrants. That’s not the only difference, however.

Most migrants apprehended in Tucson Sector are Mexican nationals. They accounted for more than 63 percent of total apprehensions in the sector in October and November, and nearly 70 percent in FY 2022.

Mexican nationals are a comparative novelty in Yuma Sector, however, accounting for just 7 percent of the illegal migrants apprehended there in October and November and in FY 2022.

Tucson Sector has yet another advantage over Yuma: Most of the migrants apprehended there are single adults. More than 79 percent of migrant apprehensions in Tucson Sector in the first two months of FY 2023 involved single adults, as did nearly 86 percent of the total in FY 2022.

In Yuma, by comparison, just 63 percent of apprehensions in October and November involved single adults, which is actually up from FY 2022 (when single adults comprised just 58 percent of sector apprehensions).

By contrast, 35 percent of apprehensions in Yuma Sector in the first two months of FY 2023 involved migrant adults entering illegally with children in family units (FMUs), as did 39.5 percent of the apprehensions there in FY 2022.

Why does that matter? On average, it takes about eight hours for agents to process a single adult from Mexico, while “other than Mexican” (OTM) migrants take much longer, and processing for migrants in family units can run 78.5 hours. In other words, processing OTMs and FMUs is much more time-consuming for agents than processing single adult Mexican nationals, on average.

More significantly, however, agents can quickly expel Mexican nationals under CDC orders issued pursuant to Title 42 of the U.S. Code in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, an option not usually available when they are dealing with OTM families and migrants who aren’t from Mexico or the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

That’s why 63 percent of the migrants apprehended in October and November in Tucson Sector were expelled under Title 42, itself a decline from the 77 percent who were apprehended and expelled there in FY 2022.

As noted, agents in Yuma are dealing with a very different population, which has led to very different outcomes. Fewer than 5 percent of the migrants apprehended there in October and November were expelled under Title 42 (2,464), a decline from the 12 percent of Yuma apprehensions that resulted in Title 42 expulsions in FY 2022.

Given all of this, agents in Yuma Sector spend more time catching, transporting, processing, and caring for migrants than agents in Tucson Sector — where there are also many more agents — do.

Fentanyl Apprehensions. Which brings me to fentanyl, a uniquely deadly synthetic opioid that was blamed for the majority of the nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in FY 2021.

In November, CBP officers (at the ports) and Border Patrol agents (between the ports) seized some 19,200 pounds of illegal drugs. That was exactly half of their drug haul in November 2021, even though America’s drug overdose crisis shows no sign of abating.

Most of the illicit substances seized were “hard drugs”, that is substances other than marijuana. Marijuana seizures at the Southwest border have been on the decline for years, as states legalize that drug (which is still illegal at the federal level).

The three deadliest drugs are fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamine, and they accounted for 13,700 pounds of the drugs seized by CBP at the Southwest border in November, 71 percent of the total.

Most of those seizures of fentanyl, heroin, and meth (13,500 pounds) were made by CBP officers at the ports. Many observers (including the president) assert that nearly all the hard drugs entering the United States come in through the ports, in otherwise legal forms of transport like private cars and commercial vehicles.

That may be true, but of course there is no way to measure the drugs that overwhelmed Border Patrol agents don’t seize between the ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico line. Certain statistics call that into question, which brings me back to Tucson Sector.

In November, Border Patrol agents seized 271 pounds of fentanyl, heroin, and meth at the Southwest border. That was a 64.5 percent decline from October, when agents there seized 763 pounds of those drugs.

Here’s the thing, however — seizures of fentanyl, heroin, and meth rose more than 245 percent in Tucson Sector between October and November, as agents there — who have jurisdiction over just 13.4 percent of the 1,954-mile Southwest border — accounted for nearly 40 percent of all Border Patrol apprehensions of those drugs (107 pounds) at that border in November.

And nearly all — 104 pounds — of those hard-drug seizures in Tucson in November were of fentanyl. Given that two milligrams (a few grains) of fentanyl can be a deadly dose, the 104 pounds of the drug seized in Tucson Sector in November was enough to kill more than 23.5 million Americans.

Admittedly, November was an outlier when it comes to fentanyl seizures in Tucson Sector, but not as big a one as you might think.

In FY 2022, Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border seized 2,200 pounds of fentanyl. Of that, 695 pounds (31.6 percent of the total) were seized by the agents in Tucson Sector who have jurisdiction, again, of just 13.4 percent of the border. More than 30 percent of the fentanyl seized by agents in October was stopped in Tucson Sector, as well.

Those seizures are all the more remarkable given that there really aren’t any big cities on the south side of the sector line. Nogales, in Mexico’s Sonora state, is the largest, with just fewer than 300,000 residents, and there really isn’t a whole lot else on the other side.

Compare that to Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, home to more than 1.8 million residents, or Mexicali — Calexico, Calif.’s, sister city — which has a population of more that a million. Or Tijuana, population 2.626 million, south of San Diego, Calif., and the sixth largest city in Mexico.

SABRE. In addition to the fact that Tucson Sector is comparatively well staffed and that the agents there have to deal with fewer OTMs and families than other sectors (and comparably fewer illegal migrants overall), another advantage they have compared to other sectors is that the local authorities in the eastern portion of the sector are running a sophisticated anti-smuggling operation of their own.

I wrote about that operation, which goes by the name “Southeastern Arizona Border Region Enforcement (SABRE)”, in September.

SABRE is operated by Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, and as part of that initiative, local deputies have jerry-rigged and operate hundreds of “Buckeye” game cameras at strategic spots along the border. Officers (and a handful of Border Patrol agents assigned to SABRE) can then be dispatched to apprehend smugglers and others who have illicitly traversed the border.

As I noted in that earlier post, SABRE has been very effective in deterring drug smuggling across the border into Cochise County, essentially pushing the cartels westward into Santa Cruz and Pima Counties. That still leaves Tucson Sector agents 178 miles of border to secure, but that’s a whole lot easier than watching the full 262 miles.

An Open Question. Admittedly, there’s some dispute as to whether drugs are exclusively smuggled through the ports, or whether the cartels are increasingly exploiting Border Patrol agents who are overwhelmed dealing with the surge in migrants pouring across the border in response to the president’s feckless immigration policies to move “product” across the largely undefended Southwest border.

The noteworthy seizures of hard drugs — including and especially fentanyl — by agents in Tucson Sector suggest cartels are taking advantage of the chaos the administration has created at the Southwest border to move the narcotics that are killing tens of thousands of Americans into the United States. Tucson Sector agents have advantages that their colleagues elsewhere don’t have — and are making the most of them to slow that deadly flow.