May 18, 2024  |  
 | Remer,MN
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Anna Giaritelli, Homeland Security Reporter

NextImg:Enough fentanyl stopped at border in past year to kill every American 18 times

More than 6 billion potentially lethal doses of fentanyl were seized by federal law enforcement at the border over the past year, enough to kill all 330 million Americans 18 times.

Federal law enforcement with the United States Customs and Border Protection seized an unprecedented 27,023 pounds of fentanyl since the government's 2023 year began last September, the most ever interdicted since a few pounds of fentanyl was first caught in 2013.


The Drug Enforcement Administration considers 2 milligrams of fentanyl, the amount that could fit on the tip of a pencil, lethal because it can put a user in a coma or cause death. The approximately 27,000 pounds seized by CBP at land ports of entry, airports, sea ports, and Border Patrol highway checkpoints was equivalent to 6.1 billion doses.

Seizures of this manmade drug largely occurred at the ports of entry, where 24,200 pounds were found, versus 2,800 pounds of fentanyl seized by Border Patrol.

Border Patrol highway checkpoints operated within 100 miles north of the border serve as a second line of defense to catch human and drug smuggling. Checkpoints caught 981 of the 2,800 pounds seized by Border Patrol. Roughly 1,800 pounds of the 27,000 pounds seized nationwide by all border authorities came across between the ports of entry.

Nearly nine-in-10 pounds of fentanyl seized was at the ports of entry, primarily between the U.S. and Mexico, where body smugglers, commercial trucks, and passenger vehicles attempted to transport it through customs inspection booths.

"It's a constant problem," said Guadalupe H. Ramirez, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s director of field operations for the Tucson, Arizona, region, during an interview with the Washington Examiner, adding that Mexican cartels "flood the port" knowing that despite what his officers manage to interdict, plenty will get past them.

And plenty has gotten past local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement — as evidenced by the record-high number of drug overdoses that have risen as a result of fentanyl's introduction.

U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 45 years old are more likely to die from consuming fentanyl than they are to die as the result of a car crash, the coronavirus, a heart attack, suicide, or a terrorist attack. More than 100,000 Americans died as a result of a drug overdose last year.

The emergence of fentanyl marked the third wave of the opioid epidemic following the abuse of prescription painkillers and then a rise in heroin use that prompted major concern during the Obama administration. Fentanyl is a legitimate pharmaceutical drug that is used to treat severe pain and advanced-stage cancer patients.

As drug cartels discovered fentanyl could be made in labs and was not restricted to growing seasons, the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels shifted their operations to making and pushing more of it into the United States by making fake versions of popular prescription drugs laced with fentanyl. Because pills are pressed in cartel-run drug labs, there is no quality assurance, resulting in some pills being more potent than others.

This Aug. 2017 photo provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Phoenix Division shows one of four containers holding some of the 30,000 fentanyl pills the agency seized in one of its bigger busts in Tempe, Ariz.

At the start of the fentanyl epidemic, U.S. airport facilities were ground zero for fentanyl seizures. CBP officers found the drug hidden in packages entering the country through international mail. Seizures of fentanyl in the mail have declined as their detection got better and cartels pivoted to ways they can get larger loads in.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency that inspects people and goods seeking admission at the nation's borders, seized just two pounds of fentanyl in fiscal year 2013.

In 2016, when seizures were under 1,000 pounds, national health leaders approached the Obama administration to warn that fentanyl was becoming a drug epidemic, the likes of which had never been seen before, according to a Washington Post investigation. It was not declared a public health emergency until 2017 after President Donald Trump took office.

Nevertheless, the problem grew, and a record 11,200 pounds of fentanyl were seized in 2021, followed by 14,700 pounds in 2022.

The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels in Mexico know it is a "numbers game," Ramirez said. Six million cars pass through Arizona ports annually, so despite what U.S. officials do find, enough gets through.

The increase in fentanyl seizures over the past decade indicates federal police are increasingly detecting the deadly drug. It also speaks to the lengths cartels will go to traffic the drug.

Last weekend, Nogales officers uncovered 20,000 fentanyl pills hidden in the engine of a motorcycle. Several weeks earlier, officers found 2.5 million pills in two vehicles.

The sleepy border town of Nogales, an hour's drive south of Tucson, Arizona, has become ground zero in the U.S. government's efforts to stop the flow of fentanyl before it gets into the country. Federal customs officers who inspect vehicles and people seeking admission from Mexico through this border crossing's commercial, passenger, and pedestrian lanes have prevented 25 million fentanyl pills from making it onto the streets of communities nationwide between October 2022 and March 2023.


More fentanyl was stopped in Nogales than at any other of Customs and Border Protection's 328 land, air, and sea ports nationwide — an indication of how intent Mexican drug cartels are to move the highly lethal substance through this community in southeastern Arizona, as well as the effectiveness of the Department of Homeland Security's seizure efforts.

"Nogales this year is leading all of CBP in fentanyl seizures," CBP Nogales Port Director Michael Humphries said in an interview at his office in April. "We've seized more fentanyl in the last six months than the previous five fiscal years here in Nogales."