As fatal overdose deaths in the United States reach record highs, Congress has ordered CBP to come up with a plan to scan 100% of arriving vehicles. Here and across the southern US border, the agency is preparing to roll out new “non-intrusive” inspection systems to screen many more trucks.
These “multi-energy portals” will zap loading areas with high-energy waves, but use safer low-energy filtering for the cabin, allowing drivers to stay in their vehicles and complete an inspection faster, according to the agency.
“This is going to be a game-changer for us,” said Alberto Flores, CBP director for the Laredo Port of Entry, who said each machine can scan eight times more trucks per hour than existing high-energy systems.
“With more analysis we do, the likelihood of a crisis will increase,” Flores said.
Laredo is at the forefront of the US government’s long and often demoralizing efforts to stop illegal drugs at the border. US Interstate 35 goes from here to Duluth, Minnesota, to the middle of the United States. For long-haul trucking, it’s the highway equivalent of the Mississippi River, a central artery in the heartland of the United States.
Mexican trafficking organizations that hide narcotics in commercial shipments use I-35 the same way as Walmart, Samsung, or Ford. Once the drugs pass CBP here in Laredo, their distribution routes are wide open. The entire contiguous United States is less than a day and a half drive away.
CBP’s Laredo field office seized 588 pounds of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl in fiscal year 2021, eleven times more than the 50 pounds detected in 2020.
More than 100,000 Americans die each year from drug overdoses, and most of those deaths are fentanyl-related. Fentanyl overdoses have become the leading cause of death among Americans aged 18 to 45, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new study from Stanford University and the Lancet medical journal projects that the number of opioid-related deaths in the United States will reach 1.22 million this decade if no further action is taken.
The advent of fentanyl posed the greatest challenge yet to conventional government interdiction methods, including border inspections. The same thing that makes fentanyl so deadly – its potency – enables its extremely compact size.
Smugglers use fake vehicle panels, hidden compartments and bulk product shipments to hide drugs. Fuel tanks, engines and batteries can be fitted with secret chambers. Drivers may have no idea they are carrying drugs, so there is little point in officers looking for behavioral clues such as nervousness.
“It’s a game of cat and mouse,” Flores said. “We will adapt to cartels just as they will adapt to the way we do inspections.”
Flores and other CBP officials insist their detection efforts are not futile. Every narcotics seizure takes dangerous drugs off the streets, saving lives, they say. In recent years, CBP has increased the percentage of railcars it scans to 100%, and the agency sees commercial trucks as the next phase of a longer effort to deploy non-intrusive inspection technology for the cargo as well as passenger vehicles at US ports of entry.
Lawmakers in states where overdose deaths are rising are pushing the government to move faster.
“A smuggler with several kilos of fentanyl, hidden in hidden compartments, must know that there is there’s no chance of crossing our border without some sort of search,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a speech to the Senate this month.
“It’s not just a gap in our safety, it’s a gaping hole in our safety,” said Portman, whose home state has the fifth highest number of drug overdose deaths per capita. “It results in the loss of lives.”
CBP has begun installing the multi-energy gates at the Brownsville, Texas, and Laredo ports of entry, part of a $480 million effort to expand the technology along the U.S.-Mexico border . The agency said it was handing out information to truck drivers to assure them the technology was safe and allowing worried drivers to opt out in favor of slower traditional inspection procedures.
Gil Kerlikowske, CBP commissioner under President Barack Obama, who also headed the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, said more high-intensity border scans are a welcome addition, especially if they can occur without disrupting trade. “The last thing you can do now is slow down shipments, given the last year and a half of supply chain issues,” he said.
But, warned Kerlikowske, “we are not going to escape this problem. Every time we have new detection methods and better intelligence, we also have an increase in seizures, but the increase in seizures does not seem to lead to fewer deaths.
“In the long term, it’s prevention that will make the difference,” he says.
In addition to scanning equipment, CBP is adding new software, CertScan, which officials also describe as a breakthrough. It is designed to streamline and centralize the growing amounts of data flooding inspectors’ monitors. In each border area, CBP plans to build a central command center made up of teams of “referees” who will decide which trucks will be inspected and which should be given further scrutiny by officers or K-9 teams.
High-energy scans produce vivid 3D images of vehicles and their cargo. In a port control room, veteran agents examined a shipment of northbound jet skis, assembled in Mexico, whose X-rays showed intricate skeletal detail.
Adjudicators receive detailed manifest information about trucks, their cargo and their drivers at least one hour before a vehicle arrives. Established companies and shippers with clean records are less risky; a truck with a random load or an unknown company tends to attract more attention.
The system integrates data from QR code readers, license plate recognition software, radio frequency identification system, live cameras and links to DHS databases. The CertScan program provides adjudicators with a single portal to all of this information and multi-energy screening images.
“Running them all within this platform allows you to dramatically increase your inspection percentage” without a major increase in staff, said Jonathan Fleming, a former Transportation Security Administration official whose company, S2 Global, has developed the software.
“Are you going to catch it all? No,” he said. “But I think you can do a really good job of greatly expanding your interdiction capability at a traditional point of entry with these technologies deployed..”
The government is racing to catch up with the rapidly changing North American drug trade. The legalization of cannabis in some US states has caused demand for bulk marijuana grown in Mexico to plummet, pushing traffickers towards hard narcotics. Cocaine seizures at the Laredo port of entry doubled last year, and CBP seized more than 190,000 pounds of methamphetamine in total at U.S. borders, nearly three times the amount confiscated in 2018.
“The honest truth is that there is no way to completely stop the flow of illegal drugs while demand in the United States is high,” said Eric Olson, a global researcher at the Wilson Center in Washington who has monitoring border security and drug trafficking issues for decades.
“The technological solutions to finding half a ton of marijuana or bulk shipments of cocaine can be solved, but when you’re talking about something like fentanyl that can be transported in such small vehicles, it’s really hard to think that it will be very successful.”
“I’m not saying it’s useless, but it’s not a panacea either,” Olson said. With increased scrutiny of commercial cargo, traffickers are likely to turn to passenger vehicles, shipping routes, cross-border tunnels and other smuggling tactics, he said.