US: Are Fentanyl Trafficking Routes Shifting on the US-Mexico Border?

Over the last eight months, US officials have seized more illicit fentanyl at Arizona’s ports of entry than anywhere else on the US-Mexico border, suggesting a possible shift in synthetic drug trafficking routes.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized more than 5 million fentanyl pills at the Nogales port of entry in southern Arizona throughout March, according to Michael Humphries, director of CBP’s operations at the port. The seizures form part of a larger trend among the 10 international ports of entry covered by CBP’s Tucson field office.

That office seized more than four tons of fentanyl between July 2022 and February 2023, accounting for 58% of all seizures of the synthetic opioid at ports of entry along the entire US-Mexico border during that time, according to official data.

In past years, a majority of fentanyl seizures were concentrated at California’s ports of entry. The San Diego field office accounted for 63% of all fentanyl seized at ports of entry on the southwest border in fiscal year 2020, and 66% of the total in fiscal year 2021. During that same time, the Tucson field office accounted for around one-quarter of all fentanyl seized at ports of entry.

As seizures in Tucson have risen during the last eight months, the share of fentanyl seized by the San Diego field office has fallen. It now represents less than 40% of all fentanyl seized at ports of entry on the southwest border, while seizure quantities have also dropped.

A CBP spokesperson confirmed to InSight Crime that authorities have noted an uptick in fentanyl seizures at Arizona’s ports of entry, but said there have been no changes to local enforcement efforts.

The vast majority of illicit fentanyl smuggled into the United States passes through ports of entry hidden in passenger vehicles, tractor trailers, or concealed on the bodies of individuals. Fentanyl seizures in the United States hit record levels in 2022 and are already on track to do so again this year.

InSight Crime Analysis

Rather than a change in trafficking routes, the apparent shift in fentanyl seizures from California to Arizona may be due in part to new technology and increased vigilance on the part of US authorities.

Improved scanning technology was first rolled out earlier this year. Then, in mid-March, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched “Operation Blue Lotus” in an effort to crack down on fentanyl trafficking through ports of entry along the entire US-Mexico border.

With a significant increase in targeted inspections, as well as the installation of a “multi-energy portal” scanner — a non-intrusive inspection technology — at the port of entry in Nogales, the operation led to 18 drug seizures during the first week, including over 400 kilograms (900 pounds) of fentanyl, according to DHS.

“[The new technology] made it far more effective in detecting fentanyl that had already been going through undetected,” according to Adam Isacon, director of the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) Defense Oversight Program.

Between the start of the operation and the end of March, almost 4 million fentanyl pills were seized at the port of entry in Nogales alone. The technological upgrades may explain the rise in fentanyl seizures at Arizona’s ports of entry, as other drugs have long been trafficked through this corridor.

Just across the border from Arizona is the Mexican state of Sonora, where the Chapitos — a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel headed by four sons of now-jailed Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo” — and the Caborca Cartel have been battling for control of historic trafficking routes, especially for synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl.

That said, federal officials haven’t offered any explanation for the uptick in seizures. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) deferred InSight Crime’s request for comment to DHS, but that agency did not respond, and a regional CBP officer in California directed the request to the DEA.

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