CBP, Office of Field Operations, K9 officer Ken Hoffman rewards his dog, after locating narcotics hidden in a package at the International Mail Facility in Chicago. Photo by Kris Grogan

Fighting the Opioid Scourge: CBP Disrupts Flow of Illegal Opioids at Our Borders

By John Davis
Frontline Magazine

The numbers are shocking. In 2016, more than 42,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdoses – more than any other year on record, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The toll continues to rise today, claiming, on average, the lives of 91 Americans every single day.

President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency, pledging the full support of the federal government in this fight. Part of that support starts right at America’s borders and ports of entry.

“Like those who distribute and sell drugs on the streets, the criminals who import and distribute narcotics into this country are relentless in their quest for profits and power,” said CBP’s Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. “As America’s frontline border security agency, CBP is uniquely responsible – and uniquely positioned – for disrupting the influx of narcotics.”

“Customs and Border Protection has a large role in battling the opioid emergency, because we’re at the front lines, at the border,” said Amy Schapiro, who’s involved in the agency’s response and is acting branch chief in the Integrated Planning Division of the Operations Support Office for CBP in Washington, D.C. “Illicit fentanyl is produced outside the continental United States, so every time it’s being used, it’s somehow crossing our borders to get into this country. We’re fully committed to disrupting the illicit opioid supply chain and are actively working with our interagency partners.”

CBP officials created a broad strategy to combat opioids with four primary goals:

  • Enhance collaboration and information sharing
  • Produce actionable intelligence
  • Target the opioid supply chain
  • Protect CBP personnel from exposure to opioids

Improving Collaboration and Information Sharing

The border-crossing nature of the illegal opioid smuggling market makes it essential that CBP also partners with other law enforcement entities charged with helping stop this scourge.

“We interact with national and regional organizations that represent the various levels of law enforcement, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association, as well as major cities’ and counties’ police and sheriff’s departments,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of intergovernmental public liaison at CBP. “We tell them we recognize this is a big issue, and CBP has an important role to play in it. When you look at how the drugs are coming in through the ports or the mail and express consignments – that is CBP’s responsibility to stop it at those points.”

CBP officers search a package at the International Mail Facility in Miami. Photo by Keith Smith

Since so many of the opioids originate overseas, part of the work requires embassies and foreign attachés to develop high-level agreements and working groups to stop the flow of the drugs. That includes working with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which approaches the illegal drug trade from a security and public health perspective.

Through international partnerships, the program, in part, helps break up cross-border narcotics trafficking, using American expertise from the State Department’s 110 partner law enforcement organizations across the U.S.

A good working partnership with some of the United States’ closest neighbors is also key to success fighting the opioid problem.

“Sharing of knowledge between the various agencies is essential so law enforcement can stay on top of current trends and concealments. The more information everyone has, the better chance we have of identifying, interdicting and disrupting,” said Chelsea Stark with the Canada Border Services Agency. “For example, there may be a new concealment method that U.S. law enforcement has seen that my agency hasn’t encountered. Sharing it will allow our officers to recognize it should they encounter it.”

Another part, closer to home, starts literally where the rubber meets the road: America’s highways. The Domestic Highway Enforcement, or DHE, program links local, state and federal law enforcement officials, in addition to North American international partners, such as Canada Border Services Agency, to catch drugs, currency, counterfeit money, and other contraband, and to break up human trafficking rings.

DHE is part of the larger High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, better known as HIDTA, a program created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and run through the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The White House-led effort looks to reduce drug use and stress its devastating consequences by leading the development, implementation, and assessment of U.S. drug policy. HIDTA assists federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies working these U.S. drug-trafficking regions.

“CBP, as part of the DHE program, shares the latest intelligence about the smugglers through monthly calls and an information-sharing system benefitting law enforcement agencies across the country,” said Stephen McConachie, a chief CBP officer and the agency’s liaison to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “If something should get past CBP’s officers and Border Patrol agents, the next layer of enforcement is the state troopers and local law enforcement agencies.”

Those in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas appreciate the information CBP shares through the DHE network to stop opioid smugglers in their tracks.

“We [law enforcement and CBP] are disrupting these drug-trafficking organizations’ method of operations by and through our partnerships,” said Tony Garcia, director of the South Texas HIDTA, which includes the border with Mexico and is one of the nation’s highest drug trafficking areas. He said dealers consider the American drug user as a “lab rat.”

Drug lords try to find different drugs, including synthetic opioids, which can be harder to detect, as well the amount of the drugs users can tolerate.

“We have to stay proactive, ahead of the game,” Garcia said. “DHE is an integral part of information sharing.”

Stark said there are formal international treaties and agreements with U.S. agencies, such as CBP and the FBI, to make sure information sharing complies with Canadian law while catching the smugglers.

“The DHE program provides a lot of timely information on smuggling trends, concealments, officer safety issues and interdiction information that we are able to share with our frontline officers to assist them with intercepting narcotics at Canadian land borders,” Stark said. “We are interested in identifying the Canadian links and networks in order to disrupt future smuggling attempts. I have been able to connect our agency’s intelligence officers with U.S. partners in relation to other modes, such as small marine vessels. So it opens the doors for the exchange of information that helps us all do our jobs.”

McConachie said it comes down to a goal all law enforcement officers have: reduce the supply of illicit drugs in America. “DHE is a good example of working together for a common cause,” McConachie said.

This article originally appeared in Frontline Magazine, a news publication run by CBP. Read the full original report at CBP’s website.

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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