HomeNewsRecord Fentanyl Seizures and Migrant Encounters on US-Mexico Border Are Unrelated

Record Fentanyl Seizures and Migrant Encounters on US-Mexico Border Are Unrelated


Migrant encounters and seizures of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl will hit record highs by the end of the current fiscal year, but the two dynamics are often erroneously conflated and linked together.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have already seized more than 5,800 kilograms of illicit fentanyl with one month to go in fiscal year 2022, which closes at the end of September. Seizures have already jumped almost 400 percent compared to the first 11 months of 2019.

Organized crime groups in Mexico are at the heart of the cross-border fentanyl trade. Using precursor chemicals obtained primarily from countries like China, a smattering of groups produce the synthetic drug in clandestine laboratories in states like Sinaloa and Michoacán.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa State Dominates Fentanyl and Meth Production in Mexico

At the same time, CBP officials on the southwest border with Mexico will see well over 2 million migrant encounters by the end of the fiscal year, the most since the agency began recording this data in 1960. Border officials routinely encounter migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but the data shows growing numbers of people also fleeing Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua in recent years.

However, an alleged health provision known as Title 42 has effectively closed the ports of entry to asylum seekers. As a result of the order, officials have expelled tens of thousands of migrants to Mexico. Here, they have increasingly turned to the services of predatory human smugglers for help crossing through more treacherous stretches of the US-Mexico border, at times with deadly consequences.

InSight Crime Analysis

While illicit fentanyl is being seized in record quantities at the US-Mexico border, federal and local authorities say there is very little evidence to suggest that migrants have any role in this dynamic.

In the past, migrants were sometimes used to smuggle bales of marijuana, but this is no longer the case amid the rise of more profitable drugs like cocaine and now fentanyl. Despite this, certain US lawmakers insist there are direct links between what they allege to be an “open border” crisis of irregular migration and fentanyl smuggling.

In reality, cases of migrants smuggling drugs are “not a common thing,” according to Andrew Montijo, Acting Assistant Special Agent in Charge in Nogales for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative division of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Rather, he estimated these cases represent “less than 10 percent” of all the drug trafficking investigations his office has worked.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

To be sure, illicit fentanyl is extraordinarily profitable, meaning that drug trafficking organizations are more concerned about losing that product and thus are likely to be more conscientious when deciding who is going to smuggle it and how. In other words, the risks that come with entrusting a migrant to smuggle fentanyl are too high.

“Migrants are not [drug couriers],” Nogales city Mayor Arturo Garino told InSight Crime.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of illicit fentanyl is seized from US citizens at legal crossings or during vehicle inspections, not along irregular migration routes. Over a recent four-day stretch in mid-September, CBP officers in Texas arrested five US citizens attempting to smuggle fentanyl into the country via two ports of entry in El Paso. Days earlier, another US citizen was arrested with more than two kilograms of fentanyl at a CBP checkpoint outside of Nogales, Arizona.

“Because of COVID-19 [and] the restrictions at the border, they weren't allowing Mexican citizens with border crossing cards [to cross] at the time. So there was a big shift to US citizens working for drug trafficking organizations,” said Montijo, of HSI.

*Additional reporting by Steven Dudley.

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