The agency will expand its presence in Mexico, where the drug cartels who dominate the fentanyl trade operate, and deploy more investigators to the U.S.-Mexico border, where the volume of fentanyl pills and powder flowing into the United States has boomed.
More than 100,000 Americans are dying of illegal drug overdoses per year, an all-time high, putting federal law enforcement agencies under intense public pressure to boost seizures and arrests.
“This is a huge priority for us,” Katrina W. Berger, director of HSI, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an interview. “The overdose numbers are just astronomical.”
Fentanyl accounts for the majority of U.S. overdose deaths. The drug’s compact size makes it easy to smuggle and especially hard for authorities to stop.
Trafficking organizations in Mexico illegally manufacture fentanyl in clandestine labs, pressing it into tablets that resemble prescription painkillers. Smugglers typically hire U.S. citizens and green-card holders to move bundles of pills or powder across the border hidden in vehicles or their body cavities.
The latest Customs and Border Protection statistics show U.S. authorities are on pace to seize more than 25,000 pounds of fentanyl during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, a fivefold increase since 2020. The drug’s cheap price is especially worrisome to U.S. authorities: A single blue tablet packing a potentially lethal dose costs $2 or $3.
Homeland Security officials say HSI is the federal government’s best tool for fighting the drug, because the agency has the ability to conduct investigations along the entire illicit supply chain, from ports to labs to the U.S. border and in the destination cities where fentanyl is shipped.
The strategy report released Tuesday makes no specific mention of the Drug Enforcement Administration, but Berger said the two agencies work closely and have a system to deconflict cases so they don’t end up producing redundant investigations.
“We have some very unique authorities that really enable us to attack fentanyl and illicit opioids — from the international countries where the precursor chemicals come, to the transit countries where the pills are often manufactured, to the border, where they’re coming in, and then into our communities where we work with our partners,” she said.
HSI officials said the agency will expand its investigative work along the U.S.-Mexico border in anticipation of an increase in fentanyl seizures as CBP officers deploy scanning machines that can ramp up vehicle inspections.
The majority of fentanyl seizures occur at border crossings in Arizona and the San Diego area, along smuggling corridors dominated by Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel.
HSI officials notched a win last week when Mexico extradited Ovidio Guzman, the 33-year-old son of Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is serving a life sentence at a maximum-security federal prison in Colorado. U.S. authorities allege that after the elder Guzman’s arrest in 2016 and extradition in 2017, the younger Guzman and his brothers took over part of their father’s cartel trafficking operation, flooding U.S. communities with narcotics.
Some of the new enforcement measures the agency outlined are more mundane efforts, such as a plan to set up a cross-border financial crimes center to work with banks, foreign government agencies and the digital companies trading cryptocurrencies that can be used to launder drug money.
HSI officials said they will establish a “Chemical Industry Outreach Project” to help private firms identify questionable shipments, and the agency will increase ties with the World Customs Organization to better target precursor chemicals destined for trafficking organizations.