EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Sitting on a large stockpile of synthetic product, the Mexican drug cartels have no shortage of narcotics to send to the United States.

But international travel restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have greatly reduced traffic at ports of entry. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who previously could perform comprehensive inspections only on a fraction of vehicles now have more time to look for drugs.

This is leading to large seizures and forcing drug trafficking organizations to revert to old tactics — like sending drug mules across the desert or have them swim past the Rio Grande, law-enforcement experts say.

“They’re still getting narcotics at the ports of entry, but what’s interesting is that Border Patrol is seeing more seizures between ports in some places where they had a downward slide for the past several years,” said Victor M. Manjarrez, a former U.S. Border Patrol chief in Tucson and El Paso.

Victor M. Manjarrez

Amid the health crisis, it’s no longer easy for the cartels to hide their shipments “in plain sight” playing the odds that their vehicles will get past CBP based on the sheer volume of passenger and commercial traffic at the border, said Manjarrez, who is associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

According to the most recent CBP report, marijuana seizures nearly tripled at ports of entry in March compared to February, but agents came across fewer amounts of cocaine and hard drugs — heroin, meth and fentanyl.

Last week, for instance, CBP officers at the World Trade Bridge in Laredo, Texas seized 576 packages containing 3,259 pounds of marijuana from a truck hauling roofing tile from Mexico. The drug was worth an estimated $650,000.

Packages containing 3,259 pounds of marijuana seized by CBP officers at World Trade Bridge.
Packages containing 3,259 pounds of marijuana seized by CBP officers at World Trade Bridge. (phot courtesy CBP)

In between ports of entry, the Border Patrol has seized more cocaine and fentanyl, but less of everything else. In a March 30 news release, the Border Patrol said its agents “continue to see narcotics almost daily.”

Graphic courtesy CBP (amounts are in pounds)

“Smuggling organizations will always look to take advantage of situations that allow them to operate indiscriminately. Our knowledge of this known trend makes us more vigilant,” said Border Patrol El Paso Sector Assistant Supervisory Agent Mario L. Escalante.

He said such vigilance has resulted in a decrease of illegal crossings and allowed Border Patrol agents to focus on drugs and narcotics smuggling.

Cartels jack up street prices, turn to other crimes amid pandemic

You would think the stay-at-home orders on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border would mean less crime. However, in Mexican border cities that hasn’t been the case. Juarez recorded 160 murders in March and has had 60 so far in April. A lot of that crime is drug-related.

“I’ve read that Chihuahua officials say there’s anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 addicts in Juarez. You can’t simply quit an addiction; they’re not going to stay put just because there’s a stay-at-home order. It hasn’t had much of an impact in certain population,” Manjarrez said.

Murder, drug activity rage in border city despite social distancing rules

Despite reports about certain drug cartels having lost access to precursor chemicals from China needed in the manufacture of meth and fentanyl, intelligence analysts said most drug trafficking organizations have managed to obtain cheaper, alternative ingredients. They might be telling their clients that there’s a shortage in order to “jack up” prices, but the reality is that they’ve stockpiled a lot of product they didn’t want to sell before, when supply started to exceed demand, U.S. intelligence analysts say.

“Basically, everyone was producing meth so the market is kind of flooded. A lot of organizations are just sitting on stockpiles they haven’t moved yet,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of strategic planning for Stratfor, an Austin-based geopolitical security group. “Some of the seizures we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks have been huge. We aren’t seeing any reduction in the flow of meth or other drugs.”

On March 30, a CBP officer referred a suspicious vehicle for secondary inspection at the Gateway to the Americas Bridge in Laredo. A canine officer alerted agents and a non-intrusive device inspection confirmed the presence of drugs, in this case, 115.39 pounds of meth and 2.43 pounds of heroin worth a combined value of $2.4 million.

CBP agents in Laredo, Texas found $2.4 million-worth of meth and heroin in these buckets transported by a U.S. citizen in a 2006 Nissan vehicle. (photo courtesy

In order to hedge their bets, the drug cartels for years have been involved in other criminal activities: from extortion and kidnapping to fuel and cargo thefts, Stewart said. Those activities haven’t stopped during the pandemic, either.

There is, however, one scenario in which COVID-19 could make the cartels implode. “They already lose a lot of bodies in their (regional) firefights. They can replace cannon fodder, but if you have figure like Mayo Zambada (the leader of the Sinaloa cartel) who were to die as a result of the coronavirus, things could prove very disruptive,” Stewart said.

The sudden loss of the Sinaloa or the Jalisco cartel leaders would cause cartel infighting not seen since the capture and extradition of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Stewart said.

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