How Drugs Pour Into the U.S. From Mexico

Drugs enter through official ports and Border Patrol checkpoints, not through the open land where walls might be built.
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The Laredo Convent Avenue Port of Entry, in Laredo, Texas.

The Laredo Convent Avenue Port of Entry, in Laredo, Texas. Heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine were all most often found in personal vehicles, or tractor-trailers carrying legal goods, at ports of entry.

The partial government shutdown is now in its 21st day, with efforts to reopen stymied by Democrats' and Republicans' disagreement over whether to allot $5.7 billion to the construction of physical barriers at the United States–Mexico border. Among President Donald Trump's explanations for a wall: It will slow the flow of drugs into the U.S. and prevent some of the tens of thousands of overdose deaths the country suffers every year.

But is a wall really an effective defense against the drug trade?

Reporting from Pacific Standard and other organizations suggests no. As Trump correctly suggests, Mexico is the immediate previous stop for most of the illicit drugs that enter America. But traffickers don't tend to send their products over the border along the places where Trump would build a wall, as Pacific Standard's Jack Herrera previously reported.

Instead, they mostly drive drugs over, in personal vehicles, through official ports of entry or Border Patrol checkpoints, as the Drug Enforcement Administration outlines in its National Drug Threat Assessment for 2017. Only a "small percentage" of heroin, for example, was seized along the U.S.–Mexico land border between ports of entry in 2017, the DEA reports. Heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine were all most often found in personal vehicles, or tractor-trailers carrying legal goods, at ports of entry. U.S. officials also intercepted more than 200,000 pounds of cocaine as it was being shipped over the Pacific Ocean from South America, where it was produced, in 2017.

Fentanyl, the drug linked to the most overdose deaths in the U.S.—nearly 30,000 in 2017—mostly comes from Mexico and China. Traffickers drive it over from Mexico, again through ports of entry, or mail it from China.

These trends suggest that more resources for spotting drugs at ports of entry and in the postal system might help prevent some of these substances from entering the country, but that a more robust wall won't make much of a difference.

"It's an illusion to think you can stop [drug] traffic with a wall," Ruth Dreifuss, chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, told Pacific Standard in 2016, around the time Trump first began championing a border wall as a drug-fighting technique. Dreifuss' group advocates for drug legalization and government control of all drug sales as the solution to criminal drug violence. Other groups have put forth different ideas, such as reducing the demand for drugs—that is, curbing drug use and addiction. None of these proposals involve walls.

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