PHOENIX – An increasing number of American citizens have been apprehended as they have tried to smuggle illegal drugs into the U.S. since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, an uptick that's come amid travel restrictions at the border with Mexico.
For more than a year, the closure of the southern border to nonessential traffic has sharply limited the number of foreign citizens entering the U.S. by land. The rules have been extended until at least June 21, but Mexican authorities have allowed most U.S. citizens to walk or drive south across the border with relative ease.
Law enforcement officials and drug trafficking experts say the border rules — put in place in April 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus — and their lopsided enforcement are driving the rise in U.S. citizens involved in borderland drug busts. Mexican traffickers, however, have long recruited Americans for the job.
U.S. citizens were apprehended nearly seven times more often than Mexican citizens between October 2020 and March 31 for trying to smuggle drugs in vehicles, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows. In the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, Americans were caught roughly twice as often as Mexicans.
“As cross-border travel shifted to essential travel only, criminal organizations shifted their operations as well,” the agency said in a recent statement. It noted it's increasingly seized drugs trafficked by U.S. citizens and by commercial trucks during the pandemic. Both groups are exempt from the restrictions at U.S. land borders.
Despite early pandemic disruptions to the global drug trade, illegal substances have since been pouring into the U.S. — the world's largest consumer of them. Customs and Border Protection says narcotics seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border have increased slightly in the 2021 fiscal year, while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said Mexican traffickers' ability to move drugs into the country had stayed “largely intact."
Most illegal drugs in the U.S., particularly narcotics, enter at the southern border. Americans are critical to these operations, trafficking experts say.
“The perception is that U.S. citizens are given less scrutiny by Border Patrol and CBP,” said Michael Corbett, who worked at the Drug Enforcement Administration for 30 years and is now a narcotics expert witness. “Smuggling drugs is a risk management enterprise. They’re looking for whatever methods they can come across to most safely and efficiently move drugs across the border.”