US: CBP: America’s Front Line Against Fentanyl

CBP sharpens focus to stop deadly fentanyl and other synthetics, as well as precursors and the equipment to make them, in midst of unprecedented smuggling of the dangerous drugs

It is a scourge taking the lives of more than 150 Americans each day – around 55,000 every year. But it’s not cancer, heart disease or even COVID – although those are also devastating to the population. It’s the number of overdose deaths from synthetic drugs, such as illicit fentanyl. With the other health issues, agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) take the lead in protecting the American public. With fentanyl and other synthetic drugs crossing our borders, it’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

“In my 30 years as a customs official, the trafficking of synthetic illicit drugs like fentanyl is one of the toughest, most daunting challenges I have ever seen,” said CBP Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner Troy Miller. “We have the right capabilities from interdiction to intelligence capabilities. We’re in the right places at our land borders and between the ports in international airports, in both the passenger and air cargo environments and at our maritime borders, too. And we know what works. Intelligence-driven operations, relentless, targeting people, partnerships, and technology. CBP is well positioned to lead the federal government’s efforts in this fight.”

“We have a multi-layered strategy for tackling the fentanyl and synthetic opioid issue,” said Joe Draganac, director of CBP’s Fentanyl Campaign Directorate established under CBP’s new Strategy to Combat Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Drugs.

This image shows how a few grains of fentanyl – just 2 milligrams – can be a lethal dose. Photo courtesy of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
This image shows how a few grains of fentanyl – just 2 milligrams – can be a lethal dose. Photo courtesy of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

“We’re going after the precursor chemicals, the pill presses and parts, the supply chain and movement of finished product, and the [money] that finances these illicit organizations,” Draganac said. “This touches every part of our authority; there’s a border nexus for all of this.”

Taking the Fight to the Source

Much of the problem is that chemicals and tools to make the dangerous drugs are coming into the U.S. from locations such as East Asia through legitimate means – cargo on airplanes, ships and express couriers – and those items many times go to locations in Mexico, where the finished products are made and smuggled across the southwest border. Intercepting those drugs is done by traditional CBP methods, such as X-rays and drug detection dogs, but Draganac pointed out the agency is trying to be active and stop the shipments long before they leave foreign shores.

“International collaboration is key,” he explained, citing one example. “With the air cargo, much of it is transiting through South Korea, so we really focus on working with the Korean government and how we can collaborate together to disrupt these movements.”

Draganac said CBP works with the government of Mexico to intercept the production materials and products going there and the finished drugs coming back into the U.S.

“As we become more successful in slowing down these other supply chain routes, we know [the smugglers will] change,” he said, but CBP and its international partners need to be nimble enough to anticipate and be ready for those changes. “It’s about reciprocal information sharing, as well as capacity building and training – educating them on trends, how we target, what to look for, and what we’re seeing.”

Draganac also said that while fentanyl might not yet be a problem in some of the origin and transit countries, it wasn’t a problem here until just recently, and it could be those countries’ problem soon. For example, South Korea – where drugs that are “uppers” are more popular than the “downers” of opioids – is seeing an influx of meth, one of those “uppers,” coming from Mexico through the U.S.

“So, there’s this reciprocal problem set that we as a global community can work to help each other out on,” he said, emphasizing to other countries how CBP can help them with their drug problems.

A Growing Threat

The threat of fentanyl is certainly an issue that has increased exponentially in the nearly 10 years since the drug started being intercepted in the U.S. In 2014, illicit fentanyl was basically unknown to CBP, with just 22 pounds intercepted in the first bust. Since then, the amount has skyrocketed each year, with the latest amount seized at the border and ports of entry topping more than 27,000 pounds from October 2022 to the end of September 2023. When you consider that just 2 milligrams of fentanyl is a lethal dose, if all that was pure fentanyl and had actually entered into the country, it would have represented more than 6 billion lethal doses coming into the U.S. during fiscal year 2023.

That’s why targeting the precursor chemicals and equipment to make the drugs before they leave foreign locations became so important for CBP and why the job of intercepting what still gets through the overseas shipping points remains a top priority for CBP as well.

“Early on this year, CBP became hyper focused on countering fentanyl,” said Robert Renner, a chief watch commander at CBP’s National Targeting Center.

He pointed to operations such as Blue Lotus, a multiagency effort led by CBP that featured targeted inspections at border crossings in California and Arizona, leveraging advanced analytics, intelligence capabilities, and coordination with federal, state, tribal and local partners. That operation – along with Border Patrol’s complementary operation, Four Horsemen, that worked between ports of entry and at checkpoints near the border – yielded more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl, in addition to another 10,000 pounds of other narcotics, such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Using intelligence gathered during Blue Lotus, CBP launched Operation Artemis and Border Patrol’s complementary Operation Rolling Wave in the summer of 2023. These operations consisted of multidisciplined interagency jump teams at strategic locations with an enhanced focus on disrupting the supply chain used in the development and movement of fentanyl. Operation Artemis led to over 900 seizures, including more than 13,000 pounds of precursor chemicals and more than 467 pill presses and pill molds to make fentanyl and fentanyl-laced pills, over 270 pounds of finished fentanyl in powder and laced-pills, plus an additional 1,162 pounds of methamphetamine and over 11,233 pounds of other drugs. Rolling Wave had its own successes bringing in more than 3,635 pounds of fentanyl, plus another 29,734 pounds of other narcotics to include 5,340 pounds of cocaine, more than 14,272 pounds of marijuana, and meth seizures topping 10,014 pounds.

Another CBP-led, counter-fentanyl effort is Operation Apollo in Southern California. Underway since October of 2023, Apollo is CBP’s national counter-fentanyl operation that concentrates law enforcement efforts from all levels on leveraging valuable partnerships, collecting and sharing intelligence, and disrupting drug and chemical supply. CBP joined with state, tribal, and local law enforcement counterparts, as well as federal counterparts from various participating agencies.

Border Patrol agents seized 60 packages of fentanyl
Border Patrol agents seized 60 packages of fentanyl that were hidden in a vehicle’s gas tank in Desert Center, California, in October 2023. The total weight of fentanyl pills was 99.5 pounds with an estimated value of $1.1 million. CBP photo

Supervisory Border Patrol Agent William Ramirez heads a plains-clothes group of Border Patrol intelligence unit agents working in the target-rich area near San Diego.

“We proactively target vehicles that we suspect of being involved in narcotics moving,” Ramirez said. “Things that don’t add up, don’t make sense, that’s what catches our attention. We’re surveillance heavy.”

Ramirez is a veteran agent who has seen many iterations of counter-narcotics operations, including Four Horsemen and Rolling Wave, which also targeted fentanyl, among many other efforts. He said what sets this one apart is how taking that whole-of-CBP approach to the operation is engrained into the fabric of it, not just a product of chance.

“Our success comes from really collaborating with strategic partners we have in place,” which includes many local law enforcement officers, he said. “When we see something that warrants enforcement, we send the ‘bat signal’ out, and they roll out with us. They’re very, very good at what they do.”

Ramirez added while they’ve always done a good job at sharing intelligence with other CBP components and law enforcement partners, Operation Apollo has really ramped up that information sharing process and integrated it into the operation.

“We’re not just targeting the cars coming in; we’re building upon that,” he said. “We have our other partners at [CBP’s] National Targeting Center, and they’re building upon these cases and generating actionable intelligence and getting that back out to the field. We’re keeping that intel cycle going. That’s the most important thing. With intel, if you hoard it and don’t disseminate it properly, then it’s no good.”

And Ramirez is seeing success from his perspective. He noted that just a few days before he spoke, they were seeing the fentanyl seizure amounts down, maybe just 20 kilograms since October. But suddenly, they had one seizure of nearly 30 kilograms, more than doubling what they had seen in the first few months of Operation Apollo. He believes the new approach they’re taking is making a difference and how the new approach of having all of CBP working together to stop fentanyl is demonstrated with Operation Apollo.

“What’s different is that now there are guys looking at this stuff and getting us feedback and generating future targets for us,” Ramirez said. “Everyone’s on the same page. Everything’s connected. It only makes us better as an agency.”

Renner said the surge operations CBP conducted proved what the agency’s intelligence experts suspected all along: Fentanyl was – and still is – a growing threat.

“It confirmed intel, and it also illuminated the challenges and gaps CBP faces,” he said, leading to CBP recommending legislative changes and more engagement with foreign law enforcement partners, to name just a couple of adjustments the agency is making for the better. “Our intel drives operations that drive impactful change. Because under that change, you’re going to get your disruptions, sanctions and arrests, but you’ll also make the positive change: the identification of new acquisitions you need, the changes in legislation, the changes in workforce and readiness. Artemis has revamped the way CBP is going to look at that threat.”

New Investments for the Fight

CBP’s position as America’s front line puts it in a position to catch illicit fentanyl coming across the border, particularly in the Southwest. The agency has made unprecedented investments in technology, putting in surveillance systems at the borders and deployed new X-ray technology at the ports of entry:

  • 123 large-scale drive-through X-ray systems, as well as revising the inspection process to significantly increase vehicle and truck scanning rates across the Southwest border.
  • 88 low-energy portals to scan passenger occupied vehicles.
  • 35 multi-energy portals to scan commercially occupied vehicles.

The addition of all these tools allows CBP to scan more vehicles and conveyances in a shorter amount of time, increasing the efficiency and accuracy of the agency’s operations and catching more of the deadly drugs, precursors and equipment used to make the illicit products.

CBP anticipates all systems will be installed in 2026. After these installations, the scanning rates are estimated to increase from 1-2% of personally-owned vehicles to approximately 40%, and from 15-17% for commercial vehicles to more than 70%.

While the high-tech solutions are expected to yield even more illicit drug busts, CBP is also using a definitely low-tech but highly skilled detection method: drug-sniffing dog teams.

“We started training our canine teams on fentanyl in 2017,” adding to the drugs the dogs and their handlers have been trained to detect, said Donna Sifford, the director of CBP’s Field Operations Canine Academy in Front Royal, Virginia. “Currently, we are the only federal agency training [canines] on fentanyl.”

Because of the dangerous nature of fentanyl, extra safety precautions are taken in the training and when the dogs are deployed to the field.

For training, CBP’s Laboratories and Scientific Services has provided pharmaceutical grade fentanyl, which comes wrapped in triple-sealed, industrial-strength polyethylene bags that allow the dogs to smell the drug while keeping them safe from actually being exposed. Training on the safe handling of these aids is part of the curriculum.

While in training, canine instructors carry a fentanyl response kit, consisting of six doses of naloxone nasal spray, such as Narcan – a powerful, short-term antidote to opioid exposures for the people and the dogs – in addition to safety glasses and gloves, among other personal protective equipment. Also, years ago – even before fentanyl came into the picture – they started training the dogs to do a passive response. That means the dogs sit when a drug is indicated, as opposed to a positive response – scratching and biting at the package, which could cause a deadly accidental exposure.

“Any time the dog alerts, we automatically presume it is the most dangerous drug, whether fentanyl, meth or other dangerous narcotics,” Sifford said. “We automatically use all the safety protocols.”

CBP is also helping train law enforcement partners here in the U.S., as well as international partners, learn how to train their dogs on the safe detection of fentanyl. “That way, we can increase the detection of fentanyl,” Sifford added.

Trade Enforcement Plays a Critical Role in the Fight

Fentanyl, its precursors and equipment – such as pill presses – used to make the drug often times enters the U.S. through common trade pathways, such as air cargo and express courier. That helps add to the complexity of the threat. These shipments can be declared as legitimate goods because some do have a legitimate purpose, making it crucial to identify the suspect shipments through analysis early on. This is why CBP’s Office of Trade plays a key role in the fight.

“We’re looking at supply chain vulnerabilities, different logistic operators, and bringing different perspectives to the same look, as well as bringing more tools to enable the analyses and research,” said Erik Grotz, the director of the office’s Trade Intelligence Division, citing, for example, the tools the Office of Trade uses to stop products being made by forced labor from coming into the U.S. “We’re bringing as many capabilities as we can to bear against the problem set.”

He added many of the chemicals and tools used to make fentanyl have legitimate uses. His office helps identify where those normally legitimate imports are being brought in for illegitimate purposes.

“We are identifying data points in the movement of goods and people, helping reduce the amount of time in analyzing the information to make sure the legitimate trade can continue unencumbered, while also stopping those destined to illicit actors,” Grotz said. “We’re attacking as many different nodes in the illicit supply chain as possible. We’re leaving no stone unturned.”

But exponential increases in the volume of trade entering the U.S. especially small, low value packages that many Americans receive directly to their front door also raises the number of stones that CBP needs to turn over. Fundamental changes in the way modern trade enters the U.S., the complexity of global supply chains, and the unprecedented volume of imported goods have made this more challenging, especially when it comes to the precursors and pill presses used to make synthetic drugs.

Transnational criminal organizations use the opacity and complexity of global supply chains to conceal illegal activity, and they adapt their operations to evade detection, requiring CBP and its law enforcement partners to consistently remain one step ahead of criminal actors. To that end, the Office of Trade – as well as the other offices in CBP tracking and seizing fentanyl – is using information and intelligence to look for the needles in mountains of haystacks, represented by the hundreds of millions of small packages that enter the U.S. each year, without holding up every legitimate shipment.

“We have to look for the people doing it,” said John Everett, the director of Trade’s Advanced Trade Analytics Platform. “We have to find their associates. And that’s where we look in our information, and ask, ‘Who do they typically work with? Who are the carriers? Are they constantly using [the same delivery service] to bring stuff over? How do we put people into the same network and focus our enforcements efforts on that?’”

Piecing together all the information to build a clearer picture of what’s really going on – and doing it in a timely fashion – is the biggest challenge. That’s why the Office of Trade has to work across all CBP offices, departments and law enforcement lines, emblematic of the whole-of-CBP approach being taken.

“We’re trying to decrease that analytical research cycle so we can quickly identify those targets of value,” Everett said.

It’s also opened up conversations between the agency and the retailers and shippers who rely on a good working relationship with CBP.

“They have a significant part to play, and we need to foster this dialogue to grow and strengthen our partnership with the private sector to make more inroads on this problem set,” Grotz said.

“We have a huge footprint in the industry,” Everett said. “We are the primary conduit for our trade community,” building on a culture of trust between CBP and the trade community and making it easier to get those partners to adjust for the benefit of all.

CBP’s Scientists Part of the Fight

In addition, CBP’s Office of Laboratories and Scientific Services plays a key role in identifying the drugs and even the drugs’ point of origin. One of the key changes the labs made in response to the proliferation of fentanyl was the establishment of 16 forward operating laboratories to augment the capabilities of the main eight state-of-the-art facilities strategically located across the U.S.

“By having these forward operating labs, we are able to analyze the presumptive results made at ports of entry and confirm those results and get the answers back to the officers within 24 hours, as opposed to the days or weeks it might have taken before,” said Terra Cahill, a special advisor in Laboratories and Scientific Services’ Chief Science Officer Division.

Cahill said some of the lab work is now done within CBP, as opposed to farming it out to other agencies, which cuts down analysis time and confirms what CBP’s intelligence suspects. “It’s been great because we can validate things that we read in the intel products. We can verify other reporting that’s out there. It’s real-time information.”

Cahill said CBP’s labs started a joint fentanyl attribution program with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration where CBP sends samples to those entities so each can do analyses unique to their skill sets to add to what CBP has determined about a sample. She said this effort underscores how CBP is leading a whole-of-government approach to the fentanyl problem.

“We bring our experts from these agencies together to try and understand fentanyl attribution, where it’s coming from,” Cahill said. “We’re hoping we’ll be able to say, ‘This seizure is linked to this seizure, and this seizure is linked to this seizure,’ and from these linkages it may help us determine where the samples are coming from, using other intelligence that comes in. Our goal is to collaborate to get a better picture of what the fentanyl smuggling networks look like.”

Randall Phillips oversees the forward operating labs throughout the Southeastern United States, particularly in Miami, New Orleans, and Memphis, Tennessee, as well as covering trade specialties out of Savannah, Georgia. The ports of entry in those locations see a lot of express consignment shipments coming from the same areas where fentanyl, its analogues, precursor chemicals, and pill presses also come from. The laboratories’ quick turnarounds for those ports are making an impact, without delaying shipping that might tip off the bad guys or keep American consumers and businesses from receiving their packages on time.

“We expedite analysis, because if something sits too long, [the bad guys] know something is up,” he said. “Anything we do that delays that analysis is potentially going to impact the success of [law enforcement-controlled deliveries]. That is the reason we have forward operating laboratories.”

Phillips said they have to be a neutral party as scientists. That way, they can feel confident the information given to CBP’s intelligence analysts is valid and without bias, and can lead to more valid case work in investigations.

“We can’t go in with the preconceived notion that something is methamphetamine or fentanyl,” he said. “We have to treat it as a true unknown, and we have to look at the science and see what the science tells us.”

Andrew Laurence a CBP palynologist – a pollen scientist – uses a forensic vacuum to take a pollen sample from a pair of pants.
Andrew Laurence a CBP palynologist – a pollen scientist – uses a forensic vacuum to take a pollen sample from a pair of pants. Photo by Shannon Ferguson

In addition to the tools CBP has in the form of all of its labs, they’re employing a truly microscopic technology to find the tiniest of indicators of where something might come from: pollen.

“Pollen is unique to every species of plant on the planet. Think of it as a fingerprint for a plant,” said Andrew Laurence, a CBP palynologist – a pollen scientist. “Every region of the world is made up of either different plants altogether or the same plants but they grow in different abundances.”

So even if the same pollens common to different areas of the world are on something, these scientists can still narrow down the origin depending on the number of spores on a sample. That “pollen fingerprint” can not only determine origin, but also the travel history of an object. For example, while some pollens are heavy and travel far, others might be more easily blown off in transit. Or there might be higher quantities of some types. Or there might be a pollen unique to some area of the world at a particular time of year. The palynologists have to see the whole picture.

“We look at the entire pollen profile,” Laurence said. And he said it’s incredibly accurate for scientists who know what to look for. They can even look at what’s trapped in a vehicle’s air filter to trace back where that smuggler might have originated, allowing CBP to work with foreign law enforcement in their interdiction efforts. “It’s very accurate, because every point on the planet is unique. So, if you have the references to do that, you could get it down to someone’s backyard. It comes down to how much information we have.”

He said there are stacks of pollen atlases that specify which pollens are where in the world. These CBP experts must know and be able to access the information to track down the one out of millions of different pollen types – including hybrids and mutations – they could encounter.

“There’s no such thing as automation in palynology,” Laurence said. “Computers can’t do this.”

“We can get a lot of information as far as the whole chain of where something is produced and how it got here, and then do something about it,” he said, adding it’s just another bit of information the agency uses to stop the deadly drugs. “We are just one piece of the puzzle.”

Eyes in the Skies

Mike Linhares is an air interdiction agent – a pilot – from CBP’s Bellingham Air and Marine Branch in Washington state, a unit that patrols the Pacific Northwest coast. He said the tactics and techniques used in a normal air surveillance mission to give law enforcement on the ground an extra set of “eyes in the sky” are the same as any other mission, whether it’s watching criminal suspects or human smugglers. But with fentanyl, they step up their response game just a bit more.

“When those cases come in, and they are dealing with fentanyl, we certainly put a higher priority on them and make sure to maximize the assets we have available to support those cases,” he said, adding they use planes and helicopters, as well as ground-controlled drones for that surveillance mission. “We do our best to prioritize those tasks.”

The real-time surveillance by Air and Marine Operations gives operators on the ground a better picture of what might be going on hidden from their ground perspective but visible to the CBP assets in the air.

“Usually the [criminal] targets are doing things to make sure they’re not being followed,” Linhares said. “If we’re there, that provides some cushion for the agents on the ground.”

He added that having surveillance on the scene paints a more recent picture for the people on the ground because the latest intelligence could be a day or even a week old. Infrared cameras in the aircraft above also help them identify heat signatures and detect further threats.

Linhares said the emphasis on fentanyl has prompted even better working relationships between Air and Marine Operations and other CBP components, as well as other local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement partners. “It’s a constant education piece for us getting out there and communicating what assets and tools we have,” he said. “We’re always working to develop and cultivate those relationships with our law enforcement partners to protect the folks here in the United States.”

Protecting The Front Line

In addition to protecting the American public, CBP is also taking measures to protect its workforce who might come in contact with deadly fentanyl. Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Gerardo Carrasco is a career Border Patrol agent and CBP’s operational medical advisor. He said that while protective measures – gloves, masks, training on safe handling techniques, and availability of Narcan – against fentanyl exposure have been a part of how officers and agents are trained and equipped, they’re still working to overcome some of the unknowns.

“We’re providing information, guidance, and education on fentanyl, the dangers associated with it, how to prevent contamination, and the use of personal protective equipment,” he said.

Those in the field are being given new resource cards – available physically and virtually over a secure intranet site – that outline the dos and don’ts of safe handling of the drugs. They’re also teaching those agents and officers what to do if there is an exposure, which happens less than most people think.

“Early on, there was a lot of panic regarding exposures. But very rarely was there evidence those were true exposures,” Carrasco said. “So that is something we’ve been fighting against from the very beginning.”

Shawn Carroll is CBP’s Office of Field Operations medical liaison. He said the fact that most finished fentanyl which shows up at a port of entry is mixed with some cutting agent reduces the real risk of a deadly exposure for those who might uncover something being smuggled in.

“If you get dusted with it – a package explodes and you get dusted in the face – will you have some effect? Absolutely. Could it slow your breathing and cause you to be drowsy? Absolutely. Is it going to kill you? No, it’s not going to kill you,” Carroll said. “But you will need some medical care.”

That’s why the training – not just for field officers and agents but even office workers – on how to care for someone after a possible exposure is so important. New videos are also being made to educate the workforce.

Carrasco pointed out basic lifesaving skills also being taught are good for a number of threats, inside and outside of the CBP workplace.

“It’s more than a one trick pony. I can use those skills for car accidents or shootings or cardiac events, in so many situations, in addition to narcotic overdose,” he said.

Another important tool used by CBP are the handheld chemical analyzers to examine samples in the field to give preliminary results. Handheld analyzers use laser and infrared technologies to identify presumptively unknown materials.

“The technology uses a laser, which can be used directly through clear packaging, so you don’t have to open up the sample,” said Natalie Underwood, a chemist with CBP’s Laboratories and Scientific Services INTERDICT Science Center, a centralized facility in the Washington, D.C., area that provides scientific support.

The Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy part of the scanner involves infrared light that compliments laser analysis in cases where dark samples or samples that fluoresce light and interfere with the laser’s operation. Add in immunoassay test strips specific to fentanyl and fentanyl analogues that agents and officers have to use, and you get multiple ways to identify presumptively a sample. That is especially important when samples are mixed heavily with cutting agent.

“It’s really like a toolbox,” Underwood said. “So, there are multiple tools that officers have access to.”

Using CBP’s narcotics reach back capabilities, CBP officers and agents send field-collected data for adjudication of “No Match Found” or uncertain results. Within an hour, the officer or agent has a response. In fiscal year 2023, the reach back capability reviewed approximately 70,000 scans. Nearly 350 scans indicated the presence of fentanyl or fentanyl analogues. During that same time, approximately 1,000 forensic samples analyzed by the forward operating laboratories identified the presence of fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, and another 1,400-plus cases analyzed by CBP’s eight regional laboratories confirmed the drug or its analogues.

Underwood went on to explain that once a presumptive positive test result comes back from a handheld analyzer or narcotic field test kit, laboratories such as hers and the seven other permanent laboratories can use specialized instrumentation to confirm presumptive identifications, which is especially important for eventual prosecution of the smugglers. In addition, these identifications confirming the officers’ and agents’ presumptive findings, give them more confidence in the handheld analyzers or narcotic field test kits.

“We want to get officers in the rhythm of using these devices along with the other tools they have,” Underwood said.

CBP officers in the field like having that presumptive test result in their hands, to have an indication of what they are handling, and in turn, to help them to know how to protect themselves, although they already take significant measures before anything is analyzed.

“To the naked eye, especially with hard narcotics, we can assume or presume what it is, but there’s no way to confirm what it is without applying a formal process to verify what it is,” said Watch Commander Robert Pagan from the San Diego area. “The scanners allow us to use technology where we can sample that actual substance that’s been concealed within a vehicle, concealed within packaging such as cellophane or shrink wrap or duct tape, to evade inspection.”

That confirmation is vital when prosecution is applied later. In addition, officers and agents know what to do as far as protecting themselves from harmful drugs, such as fentanyl, which can kill with a dosage as small as 2 milligrams. Pagan is responsible directly for about 100 men and women and another 500-600 not directly under his control. It’s important to him and all supervisors to ensure the safety of those under their watch.

“This enhances our ability to test these controlled substances in a much safer fashion,” he said. “It’s a safer practice when testing these substances, as opposed to using a traditional field test kit,” which requires the package to be opened, potentially exposing those in the vicinity to include CBP officers and innocent bystanders; the scanner builds distance and layers into the process.

Pagan characterized the handheld scanners as highly dependable, and his people find them invaluable.

“Our personnel are an investment,” he said. “The only way we succeed in our agency is when we invest in our employees, and part of that investment is keeping them safe.”

Ramirez added having these handheld scanners in the field raises the safety level when the stakes are so high and the drug is so dangerous.

“The threat is real. We’re seeing it on a daily basis down here on the streets,” he said. “The handheld scanners are making our job a lot easier, safer, which is the most important thing. I want to lead the team to a successful day, but everyone goes home at the end of the day. Safety is paramount.”

An Updated Strategy

While the surge operations were successful, CBP operators and leadership recognized the need for a steady state of fighting this continuing threat of fentanyl and its analogues. CBP leadership established a special working group to renew and realign efforts into a new, all-encompassing strategy. The group brought together experts from the uniformed components as well as CBP subject matter experts from international relations, laboratories, budget, and communications, among others. They put together a new plan to replace the opioid strategy which launched in 2018 and was retired in 2021 after meeting its goal to improve detection and identification capabilities as well as safety measures with a new emphasis on deadly fentanyl.

“We began by aligning whole-of-CBP efforts against a shared priority. These efforts focused on workforce and community safety, domestic and international partnerships, and targeting the fentanyl supply chain,” said Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Alfredo Lozano, the group’s leader. “We borrowed from the original four goals of the opioid strategy of 2018 focused on safety and created new goals to enhance operations against those engaged in the production, trafficking and distribution of fentanyl.””

The new counter fentanyl strategy reorganizes how CBP deals with the deadly drug, including mandating continuous operations against the smuggling of fentanyl, its analogues, precursors, and equipment to manufacture it. The strategy will replace past CBP surge operations. The agency has formed a new business model to make cooperation and information sharing between CBP divisions easier and reformed how the agency interacts with other federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement entities from seizure to prosecution. Draganac is the new single line-of-effort director for the counter fentanyl operations.

“I think this is a threat that will continue,” he said. “Our strategy and the foundation we build now is something that we use to build a sustainable organizational structure to respond.”

And Draganac added the development of this new approach while CBP is also tackling key mission areas, such as border security, is evidence of how well it is positioned to take on a changing problem such as fentanyl.

“People need to understand how quickly this agency pivots to emerging threats,” he said.

Renewed Vigilance Against a Deadly Threat

Grotz pointed out it’s not just a U.S. problem. It is cheap and easy to produce, and there’s a demand for the drug. That’s what makes CBP’s vigilance with the trade community – and with all other stakeholders – so important.

“When you look at traditional narcotics problem sets, there are specific source countries and a myriad of transit countries and consumption countries,” such as the coca plant used to make cocaine being limited to South American countries where it can be grown, he said. “But for fentanyl, any country that is in the pharmaceutical market is going to have that possible nexus.”

Cahill reiterated how important working with other federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement agencies is to being successful in this fight.

“As an organization, we’re working together well, taking in information from all these different sources and using it for our targeting,” she said.

Renner said fentanyl and synthetic drugs are problems not going away any time soon … and neither are CBP’s efforts to stop them.

“If we keep pressuring, maybe the fentanyl pills will go away, but synthetic drugs are still going to be here, because they’re so easy to make,” Renner said. “We’re going to be expanding more with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners in this fight. We need to stack together and stop that threat. We need to save lives.”

Looking back on those tragic overdose death numbers from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl – 150 people in the U.S. each day, around 55,000 each year – Draganac summed up why this is such an important issue for the country and the world to solve … and why CBP is so dedicated to this fight.

“Americans are dying. Kids are dying,” he said. “That’s why CBP is doing this.”

Press Release



Tags: Drug Trafficking

National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators Federal Tax ID: 52-1660752 / DUNS Number: 073539913

Copyright © 2024 - NADDI. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy / Trademark Policy / Copyright Policy / Refund Policy

Log in with your credentials


Forgot your details?

Create Account