By: Rafael Carranza, The Republican | azcentral.com
U.S. Custom and Border Protection agents stop thousands of pounds of narcotics from crossing the border. Smugglers have come up with unique and creative ways to evade detection, including sneaking drugs through air-powered cannons and hidden in food. Wochit
(Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)
TUCSON — Border agents and officers confiscated less drugs overall at the U.S.-Mexico border last year, but seizures of hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamine spiked to the highest levels in years.
The numbers reflect the trend of cartels turning to more potent drugs in pursuit of profits, as U.S. states decriminalize the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana.
The decrease in overall seizures can be attributed to a significant drop in pot busts at the border, nearly a third less compared to the previous year.
“It’s all about supply and demand,” said Rodolfo Karisch, chief agent for Tucson sector Border Patrol. “When there’s places here in the U.S. that you can get it (marijuana), I think it sends the message to the organizations that are smuggling marijuana that there is just not a need for that commodity anymore.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency in charge of securing the nation’s borders, provided The Arizona Republic with a breakdown of drug-seizure statistics through a public records request.
CBP tracks seizures through its two agencies responsible for border enforcement: Customs officers with the Office of Field Operations confiscate drugs at the legal ports of entry, and Border Patrol agents seize drugs between ports.
Despite the decrease in seizures in fiscal 2017 — Oct. 2016 to Sept. 2017 — data shows marijuana continues to be the most trafficked drug by quantity, with the Tucson sector leading the nation.
CBP data from the past five years shows smugglers have flooded southwest border ports with hard drugs.
While the quantity of pot that customs officers seized decreased by a third, cocaine seizures at the ports increased by a third, heroin seizures rose by 40 percent and meth seizures spiked by more than 250 percent.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow and narcotics expert at the Brookings Institution, expects the trend to continue as criminal organizations shift away from marijuana in favor of hard drugs.
“You don’t have to deal with the issue of odor like is the case with marijuana,” she said. “Also, the quantity is much smaller (with hard drugs) so it’s much more convenient to take it through legal ports of entry, and the costs of the product are much higher.”
Despite the increased workload on customs officers, the Office of Field Operations, which staffs the ports of entry, has not received additional resources from the federal government.
“There are still a couple thousand more positions that we need, based on the workload,” John Wagner, second in command at OFO, said.
Currently, CBP is about 1,100 customs officers short. At the start of the year, the agency launched a targeted recruitment campaign to fill hundreds of vacancies in Arizona, which it deems as “mission-critical” areas.
For the past few years, the number of trucks with Mexican produce crossing through Nogales, Arizona, has been on the rise. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection is under a severe shortage of officers and inspectors along the border.
Meanwhile, in his 2019 budget request, President Donald Trump asked for $211 million to fund the hiring of 750 additional Border Patrol agents. His proposal makes no additional requests for customs officers or improvements to the ports of entry.
As recently as last week, President Donald Trump again called for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country.
He’s asking Congress to set aside $18 billion for the wall and increase Border Patrol staffing by 5,000 agents over the next few years.
But Felbab-Brown said those funds would be better spent elsewhere.
“The money is completely misallocated … the wall is pointless, it’s a waste of money, it’s counterproductive,” said Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. “The far more urgent priority in terms of just law enforcement allocation … should be in ports of entry.”
The shift away from marijuana and toward harder drugs has also been seen by Border Patrol agents, whose jurisdiction includes the areas outside the ports of entry.
Last year, agents began seizing a larger share of heroin, Karisch said.
Because harder drugs are often smuggled in smaller quantities, and are easier to conceal, that’s changing the way agents do their job, he said.
“We also have to be cognizant of the fact that if the harder drugs come, are (smugglers) going to want to protect them even more?” Karisch said. “It just raises the potential for violence as well.”
Last year, attacks against Border Patrol agents surged. Although, most of those assaults occurred in South Texas, the busiest route for human smuggling.
Border Patrol is piloting a program that allows agents to use small drones to spot smugglers, especially in harder-to-reach areas.
“Technology continues to advance. It’ll make our jobs better and safer so that the agents can continue as to have the upper hand,” he said.
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