Cartels based in Mexico pose the greatest risk to the homeland among threats posed by transnational criminal organizations, including their “complicity in the 71,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. last year,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The 26-page Homeland Threat Assessment released last week is structured by the categories of cyber threats, naming Russia and China as the foreign actors posing the greatest risk; foreign influence activity, including disinformation campaigns targeting the election and COVID-19; threats to economic security, including destabilization from the pandemic and intellectual property theft; terrorist threats, including international groups, domestic movements, and lone actors; transnational criminal organizations, including drug cartels and human smuggling; illegal immigration as “flows within the Western Hemisphere have begun to increase after a short-term decline in response to the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic and countries instituting border transit restrictions”; and natural disasters that “require the Department to readjust its priority focus, as resources continue to be reallocated to focus on responding to multiple natural disasters, while continuing to handle its traditional roles and responsibilities.”
Mexico-based cartels pose such a threat “because of their ability to control territory—including along the U.S. Southwest Border—and co-opt parts of government, particularly at a state and local level.”
“Although COVID-19 has disrupted some cartel operations, their ability to move large quantities of illicit goods into and throughout the Homeland remains largely intact,” the assessment notes.
The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) networks “dominate” trafficking of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine to the U.S., while TCOs were involved with most of the nearly 12,000 homicides in Mexican border states in 2019.
Social distancing lockdown measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have stymied some activities of U.S.-based drug-dealing gangs, including production thanks to a hampered supply of drug manufacturing chemicals and more barriers during transportation of the product, but traffickers have been able to adapt and “drug compositions have become more potent.”
“Potent opioid narcotics like fentanyl and heroin almost certainly will continue to cause alarming levels of overdose in the United States over the next year,” the report says. “The use of stimulant drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine will continue, and distributors will explore new markets in the United States beyond major transportation hubs and regional cities.”
Cartels are also in the business of smuggling people as well as drugs — migration routes that have continued during the pandemic — along with human trafficking and child exploitation.
“The top threats in the illicit finance area are Chinese TCOs, money laundering organizations specializing in supporting drug trafficking organizations, Colombian money brokers, West African TCOs, and cyber hacking groups,” the report notes.
The assessment predicts that the persistence and severity of the pandemic, including economic impacts that drive migrants, will affect migration into next year: “As COVID-19-related restrictions on mobility ease, we are seeing an increase in illegal immigration flows to pre-pandemic levels.”
“Over the medium term, mass migration might occur if the economies of the Caribbean, Central and South American countries continue to decline and if the health and humanitarian response capabilities continue to deteriorate due to COVID-19. Mass migration especially might occur if these negative conditions are coupled with an economic resurgence in the United States,” the assessment continues. “COVID-19-related international travel restrictions that many countries have instituted have curtailed some illegal immigration from outside the Western Hemisphere. When these measures are lifted, there will be sporadic illegal immigration into and through the region.”
In line with periodic surges in illegal immigration since 2014, DHS “anticipates that the number of apprehensions at the border will significantly climb post-pandemic, with the potential for another surge as those who were previously prevented from seeking entry into the United States arrive at the border and as poor economic conditions around the world fuel migration.”
COVID-19 social distancing requirements “could continue to affect work taking place in detention facilities along the Southwest border,” the report predicts, also noting that “as the pandemic subsides, ICE will conduct additional enforcement operations to uphold its public safety mission and address the growing fugitive backlog.”