Surge in Fentanyl Seizures Show Cartels Taking Advantage of Lax Border Policies, DHS Officials Say

A DEA agent checks pills containing fentanyl (Getty Images)
November 17, 2021

Customs and Border Protection's fentanyl seizures skyrocketed by over 40 percent in the month of October, as drug traffickers and cartels take advantage of the border crisis.

Agency data show that CBP agents last month captured nearly 1,050 pounds of the lethal opioid, the fifth-highest amount in three years. For comparison, the amount of fentanyl seized in October is more than 2.5 times the amount the agency seized in the first three months of 2019 and roughly 40 percent of the amount seized in all of 2019.

The high amount of fentanyl busts coincides with skyrocketing opiate overdoses across the country—the Centers for Disease Control recorded a record-high 12-month overdose death toll between March 2020 and March 2021 with no signs of deceleration through the end of this year. The seizures also come as President Joe Biden reverses a number of border policies, a decision that critics say grants more opportunities for criminal elements to smuggle drugs into the country.

One senior Department of Homeland Security official told the Washington Free Beacon that drug smugglers are accelerating their operations as agents on the border face resource and manpower constraints with processing asylum claims instead of trying to stop drug smugglers.

"Cartels are exploiting the migrant crisis to expand drug and human smuggling," one senior DHS official said. "The administration knew full well that using agents to process mass groups of economic migrants would mean reducing the effort to combat crime. They alone own these failures."

The Biden administration has touted high seizure numbers as a success. Deputy White House Press Secretary Andrew Bates on Nov. 2 tweeted out an excerpt from an MSNBC piece that said, "The [fentanyl] seizures disprove one of the [GOP's] favorite talking points: If the president had implemented an 'open-border' policy, as the right routinely claims, U.S. Customs and Border Protection wouldn't have stopped these shipments."

Officials within Border Patrol and DHS disputed that characterization by the White House, with the senior DHS official calling Bates's comment "galaxy brain" thinking.

Many states have pinned much of the blame for the opioid crisis on the Biden administration's immigration policies, calling them reckless and a public health threat.

West Virginia, which has been among the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis, in August filed a lawsuit against DHS and Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the department's decision to end the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols, which force asylum seekers to remain in Mexico before their court dates in the United States. The state alleged in court that the decision contributed to the "devastating deadly flood of fentanyl across the Southwest border."

"By its consequences burdening and distracting the Border Patrol, the termination of the [Migrant Protection Protocols] decreases the security of the border against fentanyl trafficking between ports of entry, leading directly to both increased numbers of smuggling attempts and increased rates of success in evading Border Patrol," the lawsuit stated. Missouri in April filed a similar suit against DHS.

Research has found that just two milligrams of fentanyl can cause a lethal overdose in people with no prior use of the drug, meaning the amount of the drug seized in October alone could kill over 200 million people.

The influx of fentanyl from across the border has led to bipartisan efforts in Congress to ramp up law-enforcement efforts to arrest and prosecute dealers and traffickers. A group of Republican and Democratic senators in September introduced the Providing Officers with Electronic Resources Act, which provides grants to local law-enforcement agencies for portable fentanyl screening devices.