Drugs. It is an issue that has garnered a great deal of attention for decades. It has even made its way into the current presidential election. Candidates on both sides have pushed the issue strongly, especially in New Hampshire where the drug epidemic is becoming increasingly catastrophic. So, where do the drugs come from? How do they get into the United States?
Most of the cocaine that enters the United States originates from Colombia, with lesser amounts from Peru and Bolivia. It then transits through Central America and Mexico by way of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), or cartels, and eventually enters the United States. The majority of heroin and marijuana that is consumed by Americans is produced in Mexico. Nonetheless, about one-third of all marijuana used in the US is grown domestically. As of the end of 2015, twenty three states have legalized marijuana in some form, whether for medicinal or recreational purposes, or both. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalizedmarijuana for recreational uses. Some argue that this legalization has boosted domestic production of marijuana.
There are two main corridors for drugs transiting from South America. Mexico witnesses nearly 60 percent of drug transports and the Caribbean witnesses the remaining 40 percent. From Mexico, the drugs are transported over the southern border through certain choke points including McAllen, Texas; El Paso, Texas; Yuma, Arizona; Douglas, Arizona; and San Diego, California. Drug shipments that transit the Caribbean corridor typically originate from South America, and make their way to Florida via Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
The large shipments of drugs that originate from South America are divided into smaller shipments in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, and then using speed boats, personal aircraft and sea craft, or even hidden aboard freighters, are transported to Florida.
Marine General John F. Kelly, commander of US Southern Command, which is headquartered in Miami, Florida, says that the flow of drugs through the Caribbean has more than doubled over the past five years. Furthermore, the amount of drugs that have washed up on Florida’s shores nearly quadrupled from 2012 to 2013.
This is evidence that DTOs have begun to shift a large part of their operations to the Caribbean corridor to avoid the security measures at the southern border.
The Mexican DTOs have used fairly ingenious methods of smuggling the drugs into the United States. Over the years, US and Mexican authorities have uncovered tunnels built by the DTOs that run under the southern border fences.
Many of these tunnels are extremely intricate. They include ventilation systems, electrical lighting, support beams, and might even include a rail system to transport the contraband. The tunnels can be a few hundred feet or run for nearly a quarter of a mile. The end point also varies. The tunnels can end up in the open field in a desolate area of the desert, the home of an individual on a DTO payroll, or in a warehouse owned by a DTO. The DTOs oftentimes hire engineers and construction companies to build the tunnels and the costs of the sophisticated tunnels can run into the millions. US Border Patrol has stated that the majority of tunnels are found in California and Arizona.
Aside from tunnels, drug trafficking organizations, including the Juarez and Gulf Cartels, have developed other unique methods of transporting drugs across the southern border. Over the years, the DTOs, because of the increase in border security, have had to rely on new methods of getting their product into the United States. These methods include using homemade submarines to traverse the waters from Mexico to the United States. According to the Border Patrol, DTOs have also used makeshift catapults and t-shirt cannons to hurl canisters containing drugs over the border.
No doubt the drug trafficking organizations are inventive, and ingenious. They are sophisticated in their relations with public officials, using bribery, threats and other means to exact protection for their nefarious operations. They utilize military technology, and have mastered engineering feats such as the tunnels and submarines they have constructed.
Given the fact that that the demand for illegal drugs in the US shows few signs of dissipating, the question becomes, how does the United States mitigate the flow of illegal drugs into the country?
The simple answer is improved border security. According to figures from the Department of Homeland Security, the last 14 years have seen the southern border receive a surge in equipment and personnel. US Border Patrol currently has 18,000 agents at the border with Mexico, far more than are stationed at the northern border which is twice the length. In 2000, there were 8,600 agents at the southern border.
Additionally, there is 700 miles of fencing along the southern border; in 2000 there were only 77 miles. The border is patrolled by 107 aircraft and 84 vessels; in 2000, there were 56 aircraft and 2 vessels. Border Patrol also utilizes 8 unmanned aerial systems, compared to zero in 2000.
The southern border is monitored constantly by 40 mobile surveillance systems (zero in 2000), 178 mobile video surveillance systems (zero in 2000), and 273 remote video surveillance systems (140 in 2000). Lastly, the Border Patrol utilizes 12,000 underground sensors, 9,255 night vision goggles, and 600 thermal imaging devices.
The increased security has led to an increase in the interdiction of illegal drugs. In 2012 alone, Border Patrol agents on the southern border seized more than 5,900 pounds of cocaine and more than 2.2 million pounds of marijuana. The aforementioned resources that have been placed at the southern border has, arguably, caused DTOs to look elsewhere to transfer drugs into the United States. That is why the Caribbean corridor has seen a dramatic increase in activity from DTOs.
In additional to the US southern border strategy, the Mexican government has been increasing security at its southern border with Guatemala. Congressman Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) said the following about Mexico’s efforts at its southern border: "The US gave Mexico nearly $80 million in equipment and other things so they can secure the southern border with Guatemala. We always talk about US’s southern border with Mexico. But it’s more than that. We play defense not on the one-yard line called the US border, but also the one down in Guatemala. In many ways, Mexico is helping us keep the numbers to at least half of what they were last year.
The War on Drugs will not have a discernable conclusion, and presumably will have no victor. It is, and will remain, a large-scale law enforcement effort for years, even decades to come. However, we have the tools to continue to fight the scourge of drugs. At the border, we have seen how resources put in the right places have caused great disruption to DTOs. We have engaged with our partners around the world to seize drug shipments, capture leaders, and regain the public trust. Only time will tell how our efforts against drugs, and their providers, have worked.
Derek DeLuca is a research assistant at Monmouth University and a volunteer firefighter. He holds a MA in criminal justice and homeland security and BA in criminal justice from Monmouth University.