The recent attacks in Paris serve as a tragic reminder of the importance of securing the border against a range of threats, particularly terrorism, that threaten the security of the nation. However, terrorism is not the only threat to the health and safety of the American people. An escalation in the dangerous flow of illicit narcotics into the United States across the Southwest border has fueled violence and instability in both our nation and Mexico.
In response, the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control held a hearing earlier this week to examine the increase in illicit narcotics crossing the Southwest Border, as well as the effectiveness of US counternarcotics in collaboration with Mexico to reduce this flow.
Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) opened the hearing by recalling the creation of the Merida Initiative, a bilateral partnership formed over eight years ago between the Mexican and US governments with the intention to reduce the flow of illegal drugs into the US. Unfortunately, the initiative has not be successful.
“The border isn’t secure, and in some ways the problem seems worse than ever,” Grassley said.
Grassley noted that despite all the money invested in support of the Merida Initiative, Mexico remains a hub of illicit drug activity and border security has not improved. For example, Mexico remains the primary supplier of heroin to the US—with heroin seizures at the southwest border more than doubling over the last five years, from 2010 to 2014—fueling an epidemic of heroin abuse across the US.
In Mexico, drug trafficking-related crimes, such as kidnappings and extortions, are up. Public corruption and human rights violations continue to run rampant. For example, prison officials appear to have played a role in the escape of “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious leader of the Sinaloa cartel.
Grassley believes there is cause for hope as Mexico transitions to a more transparent, adversarial criminal justice system with public trials. He said, “These changes won’t happen overnight, but they may help Mexico address organized crime more effectively going forward.
Transnational criminal organizations
Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States. According to Jack Riley, Acting Deputy Administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), numerous TCOs are operating in the United States, including the Sinaloa Cartel, which uses its expansive resources in Mexico to smuggle and transport drugs into the US.
Mexican TCO operations typically take the form of a supply chain where operators are insulated from one another. Each operator is only aware of his or her own function. In this way, if an operator is arrested, that individual cannot reveal the rest of the network to law enforcement. They typically transport illicit drugs over the Southwest border through ports of entry using hidden compartments in passenger vehicles or tractor trailers.
Once in the US, the TCOs rely on an extensive network of family and friends to run drug trafficking operations in the US. Additionally, TCOs can rely on gangs—national-level, neighborhood, and street-level—for transportation and distribution. Not only do gangs already have a customer base for drug distribution, they also profit through drug transportation activities and enforcement of drug payments.
Riley said the influence of Mexican TCOs up and down the supply chain, their ability to enter into new markets, and associations with gangs are of particular concern for the DEA.
Heroin and Fentanyl
Numerous reports indicate that heroin is entering the United States across the Southwest Border in greater volume. According to Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, heroin seizures along the Southwest border increased sharply (296 percent) from 2008 to 2013, suggesting a substantial increase in the amount of heroin entering the United States.
Moreover, CBP sates that in FY 2015 heroin seizure amounts increased 23 percent to more than 6,000 pounds.
At the same time, DEA has become increasingly concerned about Fentanyl, a Schedule II drug that is 25 to 40 times more potent than heroin and presents a serious increased risk of overdose death for a heroin user. It can be absorbed by the skin or inhaled. The Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico is the biggest producer, clandestinely, of Fentanyl.
Distribution of Fentanyl in heroin has tremendously impacted the East Coast. Riley said DEA has stepped up a strike force in Manchester, New Hampshire with additional resources and plans to implement a full-time prosecutor. Many times those transporting Fentanyl thinks it is heroin, as do the users.
“Our ability to work these cases back to the border with our Mexican counterparts and move on the clandestine labs producing it, is really the cornerstone,” Riley said.
Intelligence and information sharing
With the increase in methamphetamines and heroin crossing the border, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), posed the question of whether we should be devoting more resources to interdiction, and how are the agencies involved—DEA, Department of Defense, CB, and any others who would assist—working on this collectively.
Riley responded that he has seen an emerging theme: the need for timely information. He said, “We need to perfect our ability to put our assets at the right place at theright time.” He also stressed working with our foreign counterparts, using their abilities and naval capabilities to work jointly with us, and the importance of joint task forces in improving information sharing.
Riley stressed the need for accurate, timely information being shared between the US and Mexico, as well as between agencies at all levels of government. Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) what he thinks could be done that is not being done, Riley responded, “Our ability to share actionable intelligence at every level needs to be improved.”
Todd Owen, CBP Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, also testified regarding the need for open and sustainable channels to share information. CBP advocates a whole-of-government counter network approach to identify and dismantle TCOs, and shut down their smuggling routes.
Owens noted that, “In FY 2015, CBP efforts at the National Targeting Center, in conjunction with increased cooperation from foreign and domestic law-enforcement partners, resulted in 40 seizures of heroin with a gross weightof 47.7 kilograms as well as several arrests.”
CBP has promoted criminal intelligence sharing through numerous initiatives. For example, CBP hosts monthly briefing/teleconferences with federal, state and local partners regarding the current state of the Northern and Southwest Borders. These briefings have enabled participants to monitor emerging trends and threats and provide a cross-component, multi-agency venue for discussing trends and threats.
Owens also stressed the need for sharing real-time information with Mexico as a crucial mechanism for combatting the flow of narcotics across the border. The CBP Attaché Office in Mexico, for example, facilitates the exchange of information with the agency’s partners within the Government of Mexico.
These information efforts have been very successful. Since December 2014, CBP information sharing efforts have led to the disruption in the movement and laundering of over $860,000 in currency, and the seizure of over $330,000 in money laundering cases by the US, Mexico, and other Western Hemisphere countries. Additionally, these operations resulted in over 48 kilograms of drugs seized, including cocaine, 11 arrests, seven US visas revoked, and two persons denied entry to Mexico.
“Our nation’s borders – land, maritime, and air environments – cannot be effectively policed by a single DHS component or even a single governmental entity,” Owens said. “A whole-of-government approach that leverages interagency and international partnerships as a force multiplier has been and will continue to be the most effective way to keep our border secure.”
In recent years, CBP has made significant technology deployments between the ports of entry along the Southwest Border. These deployments include mobile surveillance units, ground sensors, and thermal imaging systems to increase the ability to detect illegal cross-border activity and contraband. CBP also maintains 652 miles of fencing and has deployed other tactical infrastructure to key trafficking areas.
Additionally, the CBP ReUse effort utilizes Department of Defense technologies that are no longer needed by DOD but can be used to satisfy critical border security missions while saving DHS resources. For example, CBP received from DOD and delivered to its field operators aerostat technology, spectrometers and night vision equipment.
Improved technology and enhanced capabilities have also expanded the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information between law enforcement partners. CBP’s Laboratories and Scientific Services Directorate, for example, conducts pollen analysis of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine to assist with identifying potential drug smuggling routes.
Furthermore, DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is working with CBP to develop, test and pilot new technology for securing and scanning cargo, improving surveillance of the Southern border, and enhancing detection capabilities for radar-evading aircraft. S&T has also developed technology to monitor storm drains, detect tunnels, track low-flying aircraft, monitor ports and enhance current mobile/fixed radar and camera surveillance systems.
“In the past decade, DHS has deployed more resources, technology, and tactical infrastructure for securing our borders than at any other time in history,” Owens said. “Technology and detection capabilities significantly contribute to identifying and deterring the entry of potentially dangerous people and contraband.”
Addressing demand: reducing drug addiction in the United States
The issue of demand must be part of the discussion on curbing the flow of narcotics across US borders. Botticelli explained we cannot expect cooperation from our partner nations unless we show a demonstrated commitment to dealing with demand.
Furthermore, Riley said Mexican TCOs exploit a user population struggling with the disease of addiction. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of injury-related deaths here in the United States, eclipsing deaths from motor vehicle crashes and firearms. There were over 46,000 deaths in 2013, or approximately 120 per day, over half of which involved either a prescription opioid medications or heroin.
“These are our family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues,” Riley said.
Ayotte said she and others are attempting to address drug trafficking on the demand side through new legislation called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) of 2015. CARA is the most expansive federal, bipartisan legislation to date for addiction support services, designating up to $80 million toward advancing treatment and recovery support services in state and local communities across the country.
The bill was introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and is currently sitting in the Senate and House Judiciary committees, as well as the House Education and Work Force and Energy and Commerce committees.
“In New Hampshire and across the nation, we’re facing prescription opioid abuse and heroin addiction crises," Ayotte said. “This bipartisan legislation includes important steps to improve treatment for those struggling with addiction, increase prevention efforts, ensure law enforcement has greater access to tools to fight drug abuse, support those in recovery, and develop best practices for treatment, intervention and pain management.”
Botticelli told Ayotte that reducing the demand for narcotics in the US requires a holistic strategy that addresses the issues laid out in this legislation. These include reducing overdoses, giving law enforcement the tools to reduce overdoses, promoting recovery and increasing our treatment capacity.
Similarly, Grassley commented that curbing the drug addiction crisis here in the US is crucial, since “We are not able to stop it all at the border—we’re just not.” He said we need to be more aggressive on our streets and work to reduce addition through “visible, aggressive messaging.”
“I really think the goal is to reduce the amount of drugs used by Americans,” Grassley said. “That is the ultimate goal—to reduce addiction and the crime that goes with it. To reduce the deaths and the destruction of families and relationships that go with it. We have 1.5 million users of heroin today. This is a tragedy.”