Home inFocus The Issues Issue (Winter 2020) Narcotics Trafficking: A National Security Issue

Narcotics Trafficking: A National Security Issue

Jeremiah Rozman Winter 2020
Crewmembers of the Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk (WMEC 913) and Tactical Law Enforcement Team South on top of a self-propelled semi submersible they interdicted July 3, 2018. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Anything that threatens the safety of US citizens can be considered a national security issue – from obesity and epidemics to military threats from foreign adversaries and terrorism. Narcotics trafficking is the greatest foreign threat to US national security, killing more Americans than all forms of terrorism and foreign aggression combined – and it’s not even close.

The United States is facing the worst drug epidemic in its history. The death rate is rising faster than ever. The deadliest narcotics – including methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl – primarily originate abroad. Lawlessness beyond the US southern border and difficulties interdicting capable and motivated traffickers requires America to prioritize combating transnational drug smuggling.

Combating the drug epidemic domestically requires enabling law enforcement, combating poverty and reforming education. Transnational narcotics trafficking requires military and law enforcement engagement with countries where drugs are produced and trafficked, and diplomatic pressure on governments to combat criminal networks that often operate with impunity. Finally, the US government must enhance measures to physically block the influx of drugs through borders, the postal service and ports of entry.

Fatalities in Perspective

No American citizen has been killed domestically by a foreign country since Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Unceasing diligence by intelligence, military and law enforcement professionals have largely prevented terrorism on US soil since September 11, 2001. Responding to a 2019 PEW Research Center poll, 73 percent of American adults cited preventing future terrorist attacks as a top priority for the president and Congress. It was the most frequently mentioned national priority.

According to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approximately 3,500 people have been killed in terrorist attacks on American soil in the nation’s history – 85 percent of whom died on 9/11. While terrorism presents a constant danger, in terms of fatalities it pales in comparison to narcotics trafficking. More than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017. That is like a 9/11 every two weeks. Including drug-related deaths from car accidents, violent crime and disease, the number is far higher.

The Numbers

US drug overdose deaths have risen steadily over two decades. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), yearly deaths from drug overdoses in America quadrupled from 16,849 in 1999 to 70,237 in 2019. A CDCP survey found a 54 percent increase in opioid deaths in metropolitan areas in 16 states from 2016 to 2017.

The impact of drugs is felt in rural, urban and suburban communities. Gangs fight over drug trafficking “turf,” killing and maiming citizens and destroying neighborhoods in the process. Addicts burglarize homes and businesses. Poverty and neighborhood degradation foster conditions for more drug use in a vicious circle. Law enforcement, first responders and hospital personnel have their resources consumed dealing with overdose, drug-related disease and vehicular accidents. Taking into account secondary and tertiary effects, drugs cause nearly 100,000 deaths per year and cost federal and state governments billions of dollars.

The international narcotics trade is worth approximately half a trillion dollars. US drug interdictions at the southern border have increased steadily over the past decade. Only the portion of the drugs that are seized is known. An unknown portion is successfully smuggled into the country. The volume of drugs being seized is rising with rates of overdose, suggesting that more interdiction likely corresponds to more drugs with greater lethality getting through. The vast majority of overdose deaths in the US are caused by drugs that were smuggled through the 1,950-mile long border with Mexico.

Fentanyl – 50 times more potent than heroin – is the by far the most lethal drug entering the United States, fueling the deadliest drug epidemic in US history. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seizures of fentanyl have increased by more than 4,000 percent from 2015 to 2019, but the amount that remains on the streets is estimated to be far higher. In October, 2019, Ohio law enforcement seized more than 40 pounds of fentanyl, enough to kill the entire population of Ohio multiple times.

China is the primary source of fentanyl in America; it either ships the drug through the postal service or to Mexico, from which cartels smuggle it across the border. Fentanyl accounted for 38.9 percent of overdose deaths in 2017, killing 49,000 Americans. Heroin and cocaine accounted for 22.8 percent and 21.3 percent respectively. Methamphetamine – responsible for 13.3 percent – is the fourth deadliest. The majority of these drugs originate abroad and are smuggled through the southern border.

According to CBP data, there was a 73 percent increase in cocaine seizures, a five percent increase in heroine seizures, a 19 percent increase in methamphetamine seizures and a 34 percent increase in fentanyl seizures from 2018 to 2019 at ports of entry. Between ports of entry there has been a 78 percent increase in cocaine seizures, a 42 percent increase in heroine seizures, a 28 percent increase in methamphetamine seizures and a 42 percent decrease in fentanyl seizures from 2018 to 2019. A majority of drug interdictions occur at ports of entry. In total, CPB seized more than 100,000 pounds of cocaine, more than 6,000 pounds of heroin, 83,000 pounds of methamphetamine and 2,700 pounds of fentanyl in 2019.

Only total marijuana interdictions have decreased. Marijuana – now legal or decriminalized in much of the United States – is not linked to overdose deaths but has been linked to vehicular accident fatalities. Legalization decreased demand for illicit supply, leading the cartels to augment trafficking in more dangerous narcotics to cover their losses. While some advocate legalizing harder drugs to create the same effect, data show that marijuana use increased where it was legalized, suggesting that harder drugs linked to violent behavior and overdose might see increased use if legalized. Legalization might hurt the cartels but it would likely hurt the US population as well.

Cross-Border Smuggling

More cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl are seized at legal ports of entry than between them. This could indicate that more drugs are both transferred through – and interdicted at – ports of entry. It might also indicate that a smaller proportion of the drugs smuggled between ports of entry are interdicted. This is unknowable but logical considering the lack of a barrier along much of the border juxtaposed with agents, dogs and equipment at ports of entry.

Interdiction at ports of entry is difficult. Cartels have ample resources and a tremendous profit motive for devising clever ways to smuggle narcotics. CBP’s San Ysidro port director described a “cat-and-mouse game” with traffickers constantly changing their methods, from smuggling drugs in spare tires to hidden compartments to putting liquid-proof bags in gas tanks and transmissions.

CPB is under-resourced. At 19,500 agents, it is nearly 7,000 below its target level. This stems from several factors including high attrition rates, competition from other federal agencies and a necessarily arduous hiring process. In 2018, then-Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) reported that the agency required an additional 4,000 officers at the nation’s ports of entry. In 2018, the situation was so dire that the government reassigned screeners from US airports to the southwest border. CPB also needs more drug-sniffing dogs, including those trained to detect fentanyl.

Testifying in a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in 2019, the undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the DHS argued that drug cartels operate with the same sophistication as a foreign intelligence service. He compared cartels to “a Fortune 500 company” that operates according to a sophisticated analysis of supply and demand. The acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) warned that cartel exploitation of technology – including the production of high-quality forged travel documents – outpaces agencies’ ability to keep up.

Between 2014 and 2018, about 65 percent of narcotics seized at ports of entry were seized at land ports, 28 percent at air ports, and five percent at sea ports. Narcotics are increasingly shipped through the US postal system. In emails uncovered by federal investigators, cyber drug dealers urged their US-based customers to mail-order narcotics.

Mail Order Drugs

Whereas private delivery companies electronically track packages, the US Postal Service (USPS) has yet to institute similar safeguards. This national security gap has not been closed despite legislation. Fifteen percent of packages entering America from China and 40 percent globally  – millions each day – are not tracked. The Trump administration sanctioned Chinese nationals involved in shipping narcotics and ordered all carriers to search for deliveries of fentanyl from China. Bureaucratic turf wars complicate policy reform. For example, CBP officials clashed with the USPS over legislation requiring vetting that the USPS argued would slow mail delivery, negatively impacting commerce.

In 2018, Congress passed the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act and President Trump signed it into law. It required the USPS to obtain advance electronic data on 70 percent of all packages mailed from abroad and 100 percent on those mailed from China by the end of 2018. The USPS has yet to meet these standards. President Donald Trump accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of failing to deliver on his promise to stop the Chinese shipments of fentanyl. However, there is reason for optimism. In late 2019, China jailed 19 fentanyl smugglers following a joint investigation by American and Chinese officers – potentially signaling increased counter-narcotics cooperation.

A Drug-Fueled War Zone

According to the annual US Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexican cartels pose the greatest crime threat to the United States and traffic the most drugs. They are well embedded not only in Mexico but in nearly all major US cities.

In 2007, President George W. Bush endorsed the Mérida Initiative to work with Mexico to tackle drug violence, corruption, border security, and judicial reforms. This initiative has cost $3 billion dollars to date, a small sum compared to the nearly $6 trillion that America has spent on wars in the Middle East since 9/11. The magnitude and proximity of the threat and its spill over into the United States suggests a necessity to allocate more resources against the metastasizing danger on the southern border.

Large swaths of Mexico are a war zone. In 2019, Mexico’s national public security system reported more than 17,000 homicides between January and June. Since 2006, there have been more than 150,000 murders-a rate of 89 homicides per 100,000 residents, among the world’s highest. The global average is 5.3 and Afghanistan’s is seven. Many regions in Mexico – including those bordering the United States – are controlled entirely by cartels. The NCTC uses a counter insurgency model developed for war zones to assess government-versus-criminal territorial control in Mexico. Lawlessness south of the Rio Grande is a major problem for the United States because interdiction is imperfect.

The Mexican government does not appear to be able or willing to take strong measures to combat the cartels. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rejected President Trump’s offer for help after a family of American citizens were murdered a few miles south of the US border in November 2019. President Lopez Obrador called the drug war irrational and violence counterproductive. The cartels do not appear to share his sentiment. While his government is pursuing a “hugs not bullets” policy, the narcotics cartels are not as cuddly, at least not when it involves their multibillion-dollar business.

In July 2019, Joaquin Guzmán (“El Chapo”) received a life sentence for leading the Sinaloa Cartel. Mexican law enforcement and military struggle to contend with the well-organized, politically connected, well-armed and ruthless cartels. Mexican authorities were forced to release Guzmán’s son when they were surrounded and an entire town was put under siege by hundreds of armed gangsters who blocked roads with flaming cars and machine guns. The officer who carried out the younger Guzman’s arrest was shot more than 100 times in broad daylight.

Mexico’s lawlessness is not the only contributor to the cross-border drug flow. Admiral Craig Faller, commander of US Southern Command, has accused the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela of working with smugglers, using the revenue to maintain power. This has created a 50 percent increase in drug flow from Venezuela in 2019. The outflow of drugs and violence from Venezuela exacerbates a humanitarian crisis that increases illegal immigration to the United States through Mexico.

Combating the Threat

The US approach to countering illicit narcotics smuggling goes beyond law enforcement. US agents, military and federal intelligence personnel partner with Mexican counterparts. Federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies all collaborate to counter drug smuggling. However, there is no central database that compiles data on total drug seizures from all law enforcement, making it difficult to get an accurate picture of illicit drug flows into the country.

The American military – including Army National Guard units in border states – conducts interdiction operations. US special forces work with thousands of Mexican security forces, providing training in special tactics, anti-narcotics operations and antiterrorism strategies. Some Mexican security forces commanders even undergo Ranger School training with the US Army.

Since 1999, more than 100 tunnels have been found along the US-Mexican border. The Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization is working with the Army Engineer Research and Development Center to detect subterranean facilities. One initiative uses buried geophones to detect construction and movement.


The most fundamental purpose of government is to protect the lives of its citizenry. Nowhere is this more urgent than on the US southern border. The transnational narcotics trade kills more Americans than any other foreign threat. Lawlessness south of the border, under-resourced border agents and the lack of a comprehensive barrier makes interdiction difficult.

Americans have shown they are willing to expend significant resources to combat terrorism globally. While the United States is limited in its ability to act across its southern border, it can aid interdiction by better resourcing its border protection and completing a barrier. Israel’s barrier along its border with Egypt drastically reduced drug smuggling despite its primary purpose being to stop infiltration and terrorism. Barriers can electronically notify and direct forces to where they are being breached. They should not be rejected due to partisan politics or because they will not provide a perfect solution. Even marginally cutting the inflow of drugs could save tens of thousands of lives each year.

Jeremiah Rozman is the National Security Analyst at a DC-based Think Tank and a Ph.D., candidate at the University of Virginia where he studies International Relations. He is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces where he served as an Infantryman from 2006-2009.