Over the last eight months, U.S. officials have seized more illicit fentanyl at Arizona’s ports of entry than anywhere else on the US-Mexico border, suggesting a possible shift in synthetic drug trafficking routes.
“We’re seeing shipments of all kinds coming in fast through new routes into Arizona,” one Border Patrol agent told Soldier of Fortune. “This week our K-9 unit found 102 pounds of meth in Madera Canyon. It’s a problem. But the big thing we’ve noticed is the new routes for fentanyl.”
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized more than 5 million fentanyl pills at the Nogales port of entry in southern Arizona throughout March, according to Michael Humphries, director of operations at the port. The seizures form part of a larger trend among the 10 international ports of entry covered by CBP’s Tucson field office.
READ MORE about drug trafficking along the Mexico-Arizona border
In past years, a majority of fentanyl seizures were concentrated at California’s ports of entry. The main smuggling route was through San Diego, with the Tucson field office accounting for about one-quarter of all fentanyl seized at ports of entry.
Now, seizures in Tucson have risen while those in San Diego have fallen.
“They’ve flipped the script,” the Border Patrol agent said.
The vast majority of illicit fentanyl smuggled into the United States passes through ports of entry hidden in passenger vehicles, tractor trailers, or concealed on the bodies of individuals. Fentanyl seizures in the United States hit record levels in 2022 and are already on track to do so again this year.
The apparent shift in fentanyl seizures from California to Arizona may be due in part to new technology and increased vigilance on the part of US authorities.
Improved scanning technology was first rolled out earlier this year. Then, in mid-March, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched “Operation Blue Lotus” in an effort to crack down on fentanyl trafficking through ports of entry along the entire US-Mexico border.
With a significant increase in targeted inspections, as well as the installation of a “multi-energy portal” scanner — a non-intrusive inspection technology — at the port of entry in Nogales, the operation led to 18 drug seizures during the first week, including more than 900 pounds of fentanyl, according to DHS.
The new technology was able to spot shipments that otherwise would gone undetected, according to Adam Isacon, director of the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) Defense Oversight Program.
Between the start of the operation and the end of March, almost 4 million fentanyl pills were seized at the port of entry in Nogales alone. The technological upgrades may explain the rise in fentanyl seizures at Arizona’s ports of entry, as other drugs have long been trafficked through this corridor.
Just across the border from Arizona is the Mexican state of Sonora. That is where the Chapitos — a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel headed by four sons of now-jailed Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo” — and the Caborca Cartel have been battling for control of historic trafficking routes.
“They are fighting it out in particular over synthetic drugs,” the agent said.
The clash between the cartels is likely to intensify in coming months, the agent said. Part of that clash includes dodging and weaving through ports of entry to lucrative markets in the United States.
Said the agent: “They’re shifting the routes, and we’re tracking what they do.”
This article is based in part on reporting by Isaac Norris, from InSight Crime.