It’s not enough for law enforcement officers working along the Southwest border to simply detect illegal drugs. They must use a variety of methods at their disposal to do this, from the über-reliable narcotics detection dogs (or K-9s) to handheld devices called Busters that can detect vehicle structure anomalies. Agents also have at their disposal x-ray and gamma ray scanning systems … and, simple human intuition.
However, it’s not enough to simply find the drugs, which is challenging enough. Agents and officers must also clearly identify what kind of illegal narcotic substance they’ve discovered, whether it be concealed in a vehicle’s truck, wheel wells or windshield wiper fluid tank. Border agencies also have to react as quickly as possible to any shiftsin drug smuggling tactics and techniques deployed by Mexican cartels.
Currently, estimated drug seizures along the southwest border are abysmal. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has estimated that, at best, law enforcement agencies are catching perhaps 10 percent of illegal drug shipments en route to the US from Mexico – and that figure is thought to be optimistic. Typical seizure profiles consist of smaller bundles of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin being smuggled in through the ports of entry, while Border Patrol agents most frequently encounter large shipments of marijuana in between the these land ports.
For some time now, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol agents have used field testing kits to identify the type of narcotics in a seized package. The manner in which these kits work hasn’t changed much.
Safariland Group’s NIK Public Safety kits contains one, two or three chemical ampoules. An agent in the field need only place a small sample of the suspected substance into the pouch, break the ampoules by squeezing the pouch, and watch for the color change. A positive color indicator on the pouch will help to interpret the reaction. While very useful to agents in the field, these kits have their limitations.
While they can identify most major categories of narcotics, they are sensitive to extreme temperatures that cause the reagent chemicals to break down. Temperatures along the Southwest border easily enter the triple digits in the summer months, precluding agents from leaving field testing kits unattended in vehicles parked in the sun. Also, “designer” drugs, which are typically contaminated with degradation products, impurities and unreacted precursors, are in wide circulation across the globe and are often difficult to detect using traditional technologies and methods.
Enter the Raman spectroscopy technique. According to InPhotonics, Raman spectroscopy provides information about molecular vibrations that can be used for sample identification and quantitation. The technique involves shining a monochromatic light source (i.e. laser) on a sample and detecting the scattered light. Using machines equipped for this technique, chemical identifications can be performed by using search algorithms against digital databases.
Read the complete report in the Feb/March 2016 issue of Homeland Security Today.