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Fentanyl seizures rise at U.S.-Mexico border — here's why

U.S. authorities cracking down on fentanyl
Federal agents raid suspected fentanyl lab in Arizona amid effort to crack down on deadly drug 05:08

The spike in fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the U.S. has fueled a national conversation and a redoubling of the government's efforts to curb its smuggling. In 2021, 90% of some 80,000 opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl, federal statistics show.

Most fentanyl is being smuggled into the U.S. along the southern border, often in vehicles driven by American citizens, as cartels and other criminal groups in Mexico have turned the production of the synthetic opioid into a clandestine industry that has become the primary source of fentanyl in the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). 

Since President Joe Biden took office, Republicans have sought to link the spike in fentanyl-related overdose deaths with the record numbers of migrants who have entered U.S. custody along the Mexican border. The Biden administration's handling of a historic influx of illegal border crossings, Republican lawmakers claim, has allowed fentanyl to be smuggled into the U.S. at higher rates and fueled the opioid crisis.

The debate over how the deadly drug is being smuggled was on full display earlier this week, when the Republican-led House of Representatives held its first hearing on U.S. border policy.

While no Biden administration officials were called to testify, House Judiciary Committee Democrats accused Republicans of spreading misinformation. "What I find particularly pernicious is the attempt to conflate the issues of migrants seeking asylum through our legal processes with the very real scourge of fentanyl trafficking," said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, Democrat of Pennsylvania.

"Do you care precisely whether or not fentanyl is coming through ports of entry or between ports of entry when your family was directly impacted because fentanyl is flooding into our communities?" said GOP Rep. Chip Roy, of Texas. 

During a briefing with reporters Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it was "unequivocally false that fentanyl is being brought to the United States by non-citizens encountered in between the ports of entry who are making claims of credible fear and seeking asylum."

"The vast, vast majority is sought to be smuggled through the ports of entry and tractor-trailer trucks and passenger vehicles," Mayorkas added.

While successful fentanyl smuggling rates aren't calculated by the government, seizures of fentanyl along the southern border have in fact risen sharply in recent years. Experts say only a fraction of fentanyl is seized by Border Patrol agents between the ports of entry, with virtually none transported by migrants seeking asylum within the United States.

"People just don't believe that others would be so brazen as to bring drugs through a legal crossing point where they know there's a potential for them to be checked. They just think logically, it makes more sense to try to sneak [them] in," said David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute. "It's actually a lot easier for Border Patrol to spot a human crossing a border than it is for an inspector to spot drugs within a tractor-trailer full of goods."

Where is fentanyl being seized?

According to the DEA, most of the fentanyl is smuggled over land across the U.S.-Mexico border. Smaller amounts are smuggled by air from China.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency responsible for interdicting illicit drugs along the U.S. borders, has reported that the vast majority of its fentanyl seizures along the southern border have occurred at ports of entry, where officials screen returning American citizens, foreign travelers and commercial trucks. 

In fiscal year 2022, 84% of the 14,104 pounds of fentanyl seized along the Mexican border were detected by officers at ports of entry overseen by the Office of Field Operations, a CBP branch, according to government data.

On the other hand, Border Patrol, which apprehends migrants who enter the U.S. illegally, seized 2,200 pounds of fentanyl, or 16% of all fentanyl seized along the southern border, in fiscal year 2022. Moreover, many of those seizures occurred at interior checkpoints, where Border Patrol agents screen commercial and passenger vehicles.

How much fentanyl is entering the United States? How many Americans are dying?

Last year, the DEA seized enough fentanyl to kill every American — more than 50 million fentanyl-laced pills and over 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. 

More than 70,000 people died of overdose from synthetic opioids alone in 2021, according to the CDC — a number representing two out of three of all fatal drug overdoses and more lives lost than the combined equivalent of U.S. military personnel killed during the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the pandemic, from 2019-2021, annual deaths from fentanyl nearly doubled.

Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, overdose deaths have driven average life expectancy down in the U.S. over the past two years.

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Brandon Dunn, co-founder of "Forever 15," a nonprofit group dedicated to raising awareness about fentanyl poisoning said his son "was murdered by a drug dealer selling counterfeit Percocet pills. The pill contained no Percocet, just 8 milligrams of fentanyl — four times the DEA's estimate of a lethal dose.

Dunn told lawmakers that parents suffering a similar loss have encouraged him to "come up here and let people know this is a border issue, not an immigration issue."

Who is smuggling fentanyl into the U.S.?

Years ago, at the start of the opioid epidemic, direct flows of fentanyl came primarily from China. Nowadays, officials say the larger challenge is curbing Chinese-sourced fentanyl precursors from entering a U.S.-bound pipeline.

"We were originally seeing a lot more fentanyl coming in through international mail facilities pre-pandemic," said a CBP official granted anonymity to speak openly about the challenge. "The majority of it is now coming in through the southern border field offices and ports of entry."

Mexican cartels and transnational criminal organizations producing synthetic opioids next door are now largely responsible for fentanyl production, according to the DEA. They typically tried to smuggle fentanyl into the U.S. on vehicles entering official ports of entry along the southern border.

For years, the Sinaloa Cartel controlled most trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border. But officials from DHS' investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) tell CBS News they're tracking an uptick in activity by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel or CJNG. "They [also] have the contacts to China and then furthermore, the distribution networks to get things across the United States, the smuggling networks," one official added.

But these criminal networks rely on the cooperation of Americans, too. Data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that between 2017–2021, 86% of fentanyl trafficking offenders were American citizens.

According to officials at Homeland Security Investigations, a DHS branch, cartels routinely "utilize, organize and recruit American citizens" to smuggle drugs into the U.S., but the individuals working to transport synthetic opioids are not typically high-ranking members within a criminal network.

Have fentanyl seizures along the southern border increased?

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, from 2019-2021, fentanyl seizures at ports of entry nationwide quadrupled.

The U.S. government's ban on most legal cross-border traffic amid the public health emergency prompted a switch to the easier-to-conceal synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

"Closures of ports of entry massively restricted the amount of cross border travel during the pandemic, which means that in order to supply the same market, [organizations] either needed a lot more trips into the United States, a lot more smugglers to make those trips, or you needed to switch [to] the more potent substance. That's actually what happened very shortly after travel was restricted," said Bier. "The amount of fentanyl being trafficked increased substantially."

The synthetic opioid is about 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the DEA.

"This is not like the old days of [criminals] smuggling the big heavy marijuana bales — where you had to bring a lot of it in to make a profit," a CBP official said. "With fentanyl, a little bit goes a long way."

In fiscal years 2021 and 2022, CBP officials at ports of entry carried out 91% and 83% of all fentanyl seizures along the southern border, respectively. 

That disparity has only grown in recent months. Last December, CBP seized nearly 4,500 pounds of fentanyl – more than 8 times the amount seized during the same month in 2022. Of the 4,471 pounds of fentanyl captured by CBP, less than 5 pounds – roughly 0.1% – were discovered by Border Patrol agents.

Do record migrant arrivals impact drug flows?

U.S. government data and federal law enforcement accounts reveal fentanyl is largely smuggled into the country at ports of entry in coordination with cartels and transnational criminal groups.

But federal law enforcement concedes that the Department of Homeland Security is working with a "finite number of resources" to tackle simultaneous challenges of record-breaking fentanyl trafficking and migrants seeking asylum in the United States.

"If we have a group of 200 migrants turn themselves in, we of course have to process and transport them, etc.," one CBP official said. "When we're doing that, we don't necessarily know what's going on the rest of the border."

In interviews with CBS News, DHS officials expressed a greater need for resources, including personnel and technology enabling greater "situational awareness" at the U.S.-Mexico border.

What's next?

It's not just fentanyl pills and powder. Federal law enforcement is now tracking precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl – including some that are legal.

Authorities have also taken note of recent phenomena of unwitting drivers pushing drugs over the southwest border. "What we're seeing more and more at the southwest border is people that are coming across and not knowing, but the drugs have been placed in the vehicle," a law enforcement official told CBS News. "[Criminals] basically break into the vehicle in Mexico, conceal drugs and attach a GPS tracker to the vehicle, then find it later and recover the product."

CBP has witnessed a "tremendous uptick" in the use of unmanned aerial systems or drones, designed for contraband drop-offs. In fiscal year 2022, CBP detected more than 2,200 drones engaged in drug-related activity at both the northern and southern borders.

To bolster scanning at ports of entry, the U.S. government has pledged more than half a billion dollars to add more advanced "non-intrusive inspection" technology though the program has been slow to roll out. CBP officials have acquired approximately 135 non-intrusive inspection systems, though just 10 have been deployed to operational locations in Texas, Arizona and California.

DHS is now accepting bids from contractors to maximize the use of artificial intelligence in non-intrusive scanning equipment, Secretary Mayorkas said Thursday.

Trying to stop chemical precursors from entering supply chains in the U.S. and Mexico is a heavy investigative lift for federal law enforcement. "China is the leader in sending precursors. And what we're seeing is that those are generally landing in Mexico," said U.S. officials, who say they've also identified a small number of labs within the U.S. that rely on precursors.

The U.S. is "receiving good cooperation from the Mexicans," Mayorkas said Thursday, with transnational criminal investigative units "delivering results not just in Mexico but elsewhere." 

"One does not remain a transit country for long before one becomes a victim country as well," Mayorkas added.

Still, experts and federal officers alike concede that law enforcement is only a fraction of the solution needed to address the fentanyl crisis.

"Any kind of further crackdown on the border will just further shift the market to a more potent and more dangerous alternative," Bier said, pointing toward harm reduction models designed to empower physicians and users to manage addiction. "Everything must be done within the United States to reduce the demand and the collateral consequences of people using this dangerous substance."

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