US president Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the US-Mexico border started out as a barrier to keep out the “rapists,” “bad hombres,” illegal immigrants, and criminals he said were flooding in.
But the number of people illegally crossing into the US has plummeted since Trump took office, something his administration has touted as a big accomplishment. (His tough talk on immigration may indeed be partly responsible.) So the president and his people have found another threat to justify his signature project: illegal drugs pouring through the border.
“We’re becoming a drug culture, there’s so much,” Trump told the Associated Press last week. “And most of it’s coming from the southern border. The wall will stop the drugs.” A series of his tweets in recent days has hammered home that message.
Trump is right to identify drug trafficking as a growing problem. Unlike illegal immigration, which had been declining long before Trump launched his run for president, seizures of certain drugs—heroin, in particular—are on the rise. The shipments, as Trump has suggested, are indeed coming from Mexico, whose cartels now dominate the heroin market, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Heroin use is up too, leading to a spike in overdose deaths.
A border wall, however, will do very little to curb the flow of heroin and other hard drugs. That’s because, with the exception of marijuana, the vast majority of drug seizures happen at official border crossing points, not the spaces in between, according to an in-depth analysis by the Center of Investigative Reporting. (The center’s research, which was based on detailed data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, also found that contrary to the Trumpian narrative, it’s mostly American citizens, not foreigners, who are getting busted at the border trafficking drugs.)
That report covers the years up to 2011. Recent Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports suggest the trend remains unchanged. In its 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, published last November, the agency says that the preferred smuggling method of Mexican cartels is hiding their illicit cargo in vehicles and then driving it through ports of entry. Some drugs are also transported on commercial airplanes.
Unlike marijuana, which gets bulky in big amounts, drugs such as heroin can be tightly packed and easily concealed. And cartels are inventive about smuggling them in. One trafficking group pressed 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of heroin into pellets and wrapped them to look like candy and lollipops; another stuck its merchandise in cans of chongos zamoranos, a curdled-milk Mexican dessert, according to the DEA report.
Spotting those carefully hidden shipments within the roughly 80 million vehicles that cross legally into the US from Mexico might be even harder than building a wall along a 2,000-mile stretch of border. In any case, it’s a problem that requires a more thoughtful and high-tech solution.