How illegal drugs actually get into the United States

The notion that a border wall will stem the flow of narcotics into the U.S. is ignorant of the facts and overly simplistic, experts warn.

Donald Trump holds a press conference with members of US Customs & Border Patrol. (Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump holds a press conference with members of US Customs & Border Patrol. (Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Bloodthirsty smugglers are using Lamborghini/tank hybrids to ferry drugs and misery into the United States. The brave men and women of U.S. law enforcement are totally outgunned. Only a wall will stop the smugglers and the destruction they bring.

This was the vision President Trump presented last week when he attempted to argue, yet again, that a wall was the only effective way to keep drugs from crossing into the country and that the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border constituted a national security crisis.

“They have unbelievable vehicles,” Trump said. “They have the best vehicles you can buy. They have stronger, bigger and faster vehicles than our police have and than ICE has, and the Border Patrol have.”

Trump made similar claims in his primetime address to the nation last Monday, where he talked about how “our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl.”

Trump’s imagined “crisis” led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history last month, after Republicans, pushing Trump’s request for $5 billion in border wall funding, were unable to persuade Democrats to acquiesce to their demands.


Already, some 632,932 furloughed employees or those working without pay have received empty pay-stubs; a total of 800,000 workers and federal contractors have been affected by the shutdown since it began on December 21. While many employees will receive back-pay when the government eventually re-opens, most contractors — such as janitors, security personnel, paralegals, and software developers — will never see a dime.

Meanwhile, experts say Trump’s manufactured “crisis” is not a crisis at all — many argue instead that the very threats the president claims to care about would not be affected by his proposed wall, which could cost anywhere between $21 billion and $70 billion, depending on materials.

Trump’s speeches advocating the wall have repeatedly implied that drugs are coming directly over the border, smuggled in by illegal immigrants. But this idea doesn’t stand up to reality, simply because it’s a logistically infeasible way of bringing drugs into the United States.

Cocaine seizures on U.S. borders, for instance, regularly measure in tons, making it impractical to have individual migrants ferry it across. Instead, dealers prefer to smuggle drugs into the country via legal ports of entry, which allow them to bring in high-value substances that are more easily hidden.

“The majority of the illegal drugs that enter the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border cross through formal Points of Entry,” said Joel Martinez, a Mexico research associate for the Center for American Progress (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent newsroom housed within CAP). “The drugs that cross in between are very minimal and non-expensive products like marijuana. All the cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamine — they cross through formal ports because they’re easier to hide […in] freight comp and assorted vehicles.”


Trying to move large amounts of drugs through the desert is incredibly risky, experts say, so cartels and smugglers have turned to other additional methods of moving large quantities such as using tunnel systems.

“[To effectively smuggle drugs across a the border as Trump suggests,] you would need to line up a huge number of humans and march them across the desert where their heat signature can be picked up,” Sanho Tree, the Director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Drug Policy Project, told ThinkProgress. “If you had a tunnel why would you risk this inefficient line of smuggling?”

Even when border agents do discover smugglers’ pipelines, it does little to prevent them from coming up with new solutions for moving their product — none of which include packing it through the desert.

“Cut out land crossings and you have aerial — we’re seeing an increase in the use of drones, ultra lights and small planes which can be very difficult to police,” Nate Jones, an Assistant Professor of Security Studies at Sam Houston State University, told ThinkProgress. “Under the ground you have tunnels, and then you have people who specialize in certain areas in jumping over the fences.”

“There are people who have been making their living smuggling in an area,” Jones continued. “It doesn’t matter what cartel keeps control of the area, they’re just so adaptive they figure things out — they always find a way.”

In addition to aerial and underground methods, there are also several water routes that smugglers can take to cross the border. In a previous paper for Small Wars Journal, Jones highlighted how smugglers were using pangas, open-hull, long-range boats which are difficult to detect and which excel at delivering contraband to California’s vast coastline.


Then there’s the problem of fentanyl, a super-strength synthetic opioid which is helping drive America’s overdose crisis and was responsible for 20,000 deaths in 2016. Fentanyl’s potency — there have been multiple stories about first responders nearly overdosing after being inadvertently exposed to it — means that its much easier to smuggle. It’s also smuggled into the United States via multiple routes — not just the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Fentanyl is transported into the United States in parcel packages from China or from China through Canada,” the DEA’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment reads, acknowledging that it also comes through ports of entry at the southern border.

The report notes that while the quantity of fentanyl seized on the border is higher, packages from China have higher purity. To further emphasize this, the Department of Justice in 2017 announced its first-ever indictments against Chinese nationals for the manufacture of fentanyl.

According to Tree, the popularity of fentanyl gives smugglers an easy and deadlier option to turn to even if the wall manages to stop more mainstream drugs like heroin. “If you clamp down, people find work-arounds to synthesize analog opioids. The iron law of prohibition is you end up with more potent substances that a more compact and easier to smuggle,” Tree said. “Even if the wall stops 30 to 40 percent of heroin from Mexico dealers will respond by using more fentanyl, which will cause overdoses to skyrocket.”

The Trump administration’s wall proposal, then, not only ignores the intricacies of the drug trade but takes away focus from providing actual solutions on the border, such as Martinez’s suggestion to deviate daily cross traffic so that vetted travelers are able to pass more easily, which in turn allows law enforcement to “reduce the haystack when looking for the needle.” Trump’s continued insistence on the wall has less to do with actual security and more playing politics.

“He is buying into the threat and every politician does this,” Jones said.

He added, “It’s good politics, the idea that this big enemy is coming to harm us. This justifies the massive expense of money.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the border wall would cost in between $21 million and $70 million. The correct amount is between $21 billion and $70 billion.