Lawmen zero in on cartels smuggling fentanyl into US, taking guns back into Mexico

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AG William Barr reportedly considering high-tech inspections of vehicles traveling to Mexico

CBP displays seized quantities of fentanyl. (AP photo)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Top U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials will hold a third round of talks next month on stopping the cartels from sending drugs north while bringing back guns and cash from America.

The high-level dialogue that began on Dec. 5 and continued this week with Attorney General William Barr traveling to Mexico City is scheduled to resume with a joint meeting in February, the Department of Justice said Friday.

On Thursday, the Mexican government said both countries committed to continue the fight against transnational organizations — which have stepped up the violence in Mexico in the past few months and are now major players in the smuggling of the deadly opioid fentanyl, which is claiming thousands of lives in the United States.

“Various advances on the issue of weapons trafficking were discussed with the goal of implementing operations utilizing non-intrusive technology in key border points to stop the smuggling of weapons and ammunition into our county,” Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said.

“Likewise, we agreed on a binational plan to reduce the flow of weapons, drugs and monetary instruments on the part of transnational criminal organizations […] and treat fentanyl (trafficking) as a common problem.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr (center) concluded a meeting with top Mexican government officials. (photo courtesy Government of Mexico)

Both countries also pledged to combat drug addiction, which has long been a problem in the United States but has exploded in Mexico since tightened security on the border due to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted Mexican drug cartels to push their domestic sales, according to law-enforcement experts. In Juarez, Mexico, for instance, authorities attribute up to 90 percent of the city’s nearly 1,500 homicides last year to drug-trafficking activity.

Fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic drug primarily manufactured and shipped from China, is now blamed for nearly half of all overdose deaths in the United States. Mexican criminal groups like the Sinaloa cartel and the Cartel Jalisco New Generation are now heavily involved in smuggling the drug into the United States, according to experts.

“Big chunks still come from China … but the transnational criminal organizations know that’s a very profitable market and are getting into it,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., associate director of the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Manjarrez, a former U.S. Border Patrol chief in El Paso and Tucson, Arizona, said stopping the fentanyl from coming into the United States is a challenge.

“The criminal element is very adept, they’re usually one step ahead of the authorities. I’d say 90 to 95 percent (of the fentanyl) from Mexico is coming through the ports of entry, usually hidden in plain view,” Manjarrez said.

He explained the cartels have figured out ways to liquify the chemicals, shape them into solids and get them into the United States passing them off as “legal commerce.”

“You may be looking at a vase and thinking, ‘is that a vase or something else?’ They’re hiding it in plain sight and it’s a big challenge for law-enforcement,” he said.

Fentanyl seizures at America’s ports of entry have increased almost five-fold since 2016. That year, the Office of Field Operations of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported seizing 596 pounds of the synthetic opioid. By 2019, seizures were up to 2,545 pounds.

The year 2019 was one of the deadliest on record as far as murders in Mexico, according to the Ministry of Public Safety. Mexico, which has very strict firearm laws, has long held the guns that claim most of its citizens’ lives are brought in illegally from the United States.

CBP displays seized quantities of fentanyl. (AP photo)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and local authorities occasionally set up southbound checkpoints at border crossings. However, applying non-intrusive inspection (NII) technology for vehicles going into Mexico is easier said than done, Manjarrez said.

“NII is set up for northbound inspections. You basically have the gamma and X-ray machines for semis coming through El Paso, Nogales, San Ysidro, Laredo … but there’s no infrastructure in place for southbound (NII). It’ll be very interesting to see how that will be implemented,” Manjarrez said.

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