President Donald Trump says that his proposed wall along the Mexico border “will stop much of the drugs from pouring into this country.” We cannot predict the future, but the fact is that most illicit drugs pass undetected through legal ports of entry.
Mexican cartels “transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest Border through ports of entry (POEs) using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers,” the Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2015 report. “The drugs are typically secreted in hidden compartments when transported in passenger vehicles or comingled with legitimate goods when transported in tractor trailers.”
In an essay published earlier this month, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote that “a barrier in the form of a wall is increasingly irrelevant to the drug trade as it is now practiced because most of the drugs smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico no longer arrive on the backs of those who cross illegally.”
“The wall won’t stop the flow of drugs into the United States,” Felbab-Brown told us in an email.
Trump made his remarks during a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö. Trump was asked about his threat to shut down the U.S. government if Congress doesn’t provide funding for the wall, even though he had promised during the campaign to make Mexico pay for the wall.
In stressing the need for a border wall, Trump repeatedly said the wall would stop the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico.
Trump, Aug. 28: The wall will stop much of the drugs from pouring into this country and poisoning our youth. So we need the wall. It’s imperative. …
The wall is needed from the standpoint of drug — tremendous, the drug scourge, what’s coming through the areas that we’re talking about. …
So we will build the wall, and we will stop a lot of things, including the drug — the drugs are pouring in at levels like nobody has ever seen. We’ll be able to stop them once the wall is up.
But experts we interviewed said there are reasons to be skeptical that a border wall would have much, if any, impact on the drug trade — beginning with the simple fact that much of the drug trade comes through legal ports of entry.
In its 2015 report, the DEA said this about how the Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations, or TCOs, smuggle drugs across the border:
National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, October 2015: Mexican TCOs transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest Border through ports of entry (POEs) using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers. The drugs are typically secreted in hidden compartments when transported in passenger vehicles or comingled with legitimate goods when transported in tractor trailers. Once across the Southwest Border, the drugs are transported to stash houses in hub cities such as Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and then transported via these same conveyances to distribution groups in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
Mexican TCOs also smuggle drugs across the Southwest Border using other methods. Marijuana is occasionally trafficked through subterranean tunnels connected to a network of safe houses on both the Mexico and the US sides of the border. Mexican TCOs also transport marijuana via commercial cargo trains and on small boats, often referred to as “pangas,” from the West Coast of Baja California north to the central California coast. Finally, Mexican TCOs have also transported drugs across the Southwest Border using ultralight aircraft.
Trump’s proposed wall would have no impact on drugs smuggled by passenger vehicles, tractor trailers, cargo trains, small boats or ultralight aircraft.
But it may have an impact on drugs smuggled through tunnels. As we have written before, the Trump administration has proposed that the wall extend 6 feet below the ground to prevent people from tunneling under the wall.
Let’s take a closer look at the four major drugs that are smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico and how each is transported.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection data show that the amount of heroin and methamphetamine seized at the southwest border from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal 2016 has significantly increased, while there has been a decline in the amount of marijuana and cocaine stopped at the border.
Here’s what we know about drug seizures, based on CBP data over the last six years, and the most common way the drugs cross the border, based on the 2015 DEA report:
- Methamphetamine, up 347 percent: In fiscal 2016, border patrol agents seized 8,215 pounds of methamphetamine — up from 1,838 pounds in fiscal 2011. The DEA says, “Traffickers most commonly transport methamphetamine in tractor trailers and passenger vehicles with hidden compartments. In addition, traffickers send methamphetamine through various mail services or by couriers traveling via bus or commercial airline.”
- Heroin, up 45 percent: The amount of heroin seized at the border has increased from 6,191 pounds in fiscal 2011 to 8,961 pounds in fiscal 2016. The DEA says, “Most heroin smuggled across the border is transported in privately-owned vehicles, usually through California, as well as through south Texas.”
- Cocaine, down 52 percent: About 4,183 pounds of cocaine was seized at the border in fiscal 2016 — down from 8,763 pounds in fiscal 2011. “Tractor trailers and passenger vehicles are frequently used to transport multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine,” the DEA says. “Cocaine is hidden amongst legitimate cargo or secreted inside of intricate hidden compartments built within passenger vehicles.”
- Marijuana, down 49 percent: The amount of marijuana seized has dropped 49 percent since fiscal 2011. The DEA says “large quantities of marijuana” are smuggled “through subterranean tunnels.”
John Kelly, the former Department of Homeland Security secretary who is now Trump’s chief of staff, acknowledged at a congressional hearing in April that illegal drugs from Mexico “mostly come through the ports of entry.”
At the hearing, Kelly talked about U.S. efforts to eradicate poppy fields in Mexico. But he then said: “That’s what we’re doing but the big issue really right now in drugs coming into the United States is the ports of entry.”
Kelly talked about the need to improve technology – such as density meters – that can “look” into vehicles for signs of drugs packed into tight areas.
“Technology that looks into trucks, tractor-trailers is pretty good but I know there’s better stuff out there and we’ll just — we’ll just get after it,” Kelly said. “But mostly the drugs come in, we believe, we know comes in, in relatively small amounts, 10, 15 kilos at a time in — in automobiles and those kind of conveyances.”
Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland criminal justice professor who founded and directed RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center from 1989-1993, told us he is skeptical of Trump’s statement that a border wall would stop “much of the drugs” from coming into the United States from Mexico.
In addition to the fact that most drugs come through legal ports of entry, Reuter said that smugglers have a long history of adapting to law enforcement’s attempts to stop the flow of illegal drugs.
“The history is that smugglers eventually figure a work around,” Reuter said. “There have been many promising interdiction inventions — none of them have more than a temporary dent.”
Reuter cited, for example, the use of drones — which the DEA says has increased in recent years. Drones are “small, quiet, can fly at high altitudes over a distance of several miles and, depending on their size, are generally capable of carrying 5 to 10 pounds of drugs,” the DEA says.
Separately, Stephen D. Morris, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor whose research has largely focused on Mexico, gave us the same two reasons for why he believes “the wall will not do very much to stop drugs.”
“First, as you say, most drug shipments come disguised as commerce and are crossing the border by truck or in cargo containers. Human mules, to my knowledge, bring in a small fraction,” he said. “Second, smugglers adapt. Whether it is tunnels, submarines, mules, drones, etc., they are good at figuring out new ways to get drugs to those in the US who will buy them.”
As we said, we cannot predict the future. But the facts suggest that building a wall is unlikely to “stop much of the drugs from pouring into this country,” as the president said.