Why So Much Fentanyl Is Being Seized at the Border

MEXICO CITY—Fentanyl seizures at the United States-Mexico border more than doubled in 2021 to surpass heroin for the first time ever. But experts say the COVID-19 border shutdown may explain the record numbers because it gave agents more time to inspect fewer vehicles. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics showed that 10,586 pounds of fentanyl and 4,969 pounds of heroin were seized on the southern U.S. border during the 2021 fiscal year. The total for fentanyl was more than double the amount for the same period in 2020 and it was slightly lower for heroin. 

Dr. Victor Manjarrez Jr., a retired CBP agent who is now a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, pushed back on the notion that the amount of fentanyl entering the country suddenly skyrocketed in 2021.

“Fentanyl over the years has been increasing,” said Manjarrez, adding that seizures of the synthetic opioid up to 50 times more powerful than heroin have risen steadily over the past decade.

“What's interesting though, is when you see the recent seizures from CBP, the vast majority of that is at the ports of entry.”

Most of the 2021 seizures took place at large border crossings where smugglers had previously been able to take advantage of what he called the “chaos and clutter” to “hide in plain sight” as tens of thousands of cars and trucks pass each day. But since the coronavirus pandemic stopped all but essential travel, CBP officers are given “more time to [inspect vehicles], and so they're finding that stuff a lot more.”

“The pace has slowed down in the last 18 months. But the number of personnel hasn't gone down. CBP didn't reduce the number of lanes,” he continued.

The United States closed its northern and southern land borders from March 2020 until partially reopening in November to vaccinated travelers as a measure to control the spread of the coronavirus. Although industrial traffic was allowed, the trips that many border residents take to shop, study and visit family were blocked. 

Along with an increase in fentanyl seizures, both methamphetamine and cocaine saw increases in 2021. Manjarrez said that with the reopening of borders to everyday travel, and the return of “chaos and clutter”, those seizures would probably fall as well.

The dramatic rise in fentanyl seizures—up from 4,558 pounds in 2020—made waves across media when it was first announced a month ago. It was quickly linked to a record-high number of drug overdoses reported by the Centers for Disease Control: More than 100,000 people died over a 12-month period in the United States. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the overdose crisis, experts said, because people with addictions have had trouble accessing health care and the harm reduction measures that prevent overdoses. 

While Manjarrez argued that seizures were up because of additional inspections, that does not explain the figures for heroin, which fell slightly in 2021 from 5,157 pounds the year before. Manjarrez said it was possible that heroin trafficking is down because the overhead costs of producing fentanyl are lower than those for heroin, which is less powerful. So it would make sense for traffickers to try to push more fentanyl than heroin.

“It's kind of like, do you want to work at a Chevy dealership? Or do you want to work at a Porsche dealership?” asked the former CBP agent. “I sell one car but my profit is different.”

Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert for the Institute for Policy Studies, called the transition from heroin to fentanyl “a logical evolution of this market.”

Tree brought up a well-known drug analysis from the 1980s known as “the iron law of prohibition” that has proved to be prescient in predicting the current fentanyl epidemic.

“As you crack down on the original substances, you end up with a substitute that is usually more compact, more potent, easier to smuggle and more problematic, more dangerous,” Tree told VICE World News.

He also suggested that the increase in seizures could be a result of traffickers sending larger loads across the border because the risk is the same regardless of the size. 

On November 18, authorities arrested the driver of a tractor-trailer, Carlos Martin Quintana Arias, after discovering massive amounts of drugs hidden in a cargo described as auto parts that he was transporting from Tijuana into San Diego. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said that the 17,584 pounds of meth and 389 pounds of fentanyl in the trailer were the largest seizures of either drug in the last two years. The 2021 fiscal year ended September 30 and those busts will go into the statistics for 2022. 

“It kind of makes economic sense, in for a penny, in for a pound,” said Tree. “If you're going to smuggle one kilo, why not smuggle two kilos?”

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