Enormous meth seizures at the southwest border
ℬorder restrictions enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 have contributed to the recent series of multi-million dollar methamphetamine seizures at the U.S. southwestern border.
On February 20, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that the DEA would begin to direct resources to methamphetamine transportation hubs, where methamphetamine is often trafficked in bulk for distribution across the country. While continuing to focus on stopping drug smuggling across the southwestern border, the DEA’s ‘Operation Crystal Shield’ would aim to block their further distribution into America’s neighborhoods.
The DEA said that efforts would be concentrated in the following eight major methamphetamine transportation hubs: Atlanta, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Phoenix, and St. Louis. Together, those DEA Field Divisions accounted for more than 75 percent of methamphetamine seized in the U.S. in 2019.
Virtually all methamphetamine in the United States is smuggled through major Customs and Border Protection ports of entry along the southwest Border. It is then transported by tractor trailers and personal vehicles along the nation’s highways to major distribution hubs around the country. Methamphetamine is often found in poly-drug loads, alongside cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl.
From fiscal year 2017 to FY 2019, DEA domestic seizures of methamphetamine increased by 127 percent, from 49,507 pounds to 112,146 pounds, according to the Operation Crystal Shield announcement. During the same time frame, the number of DEA methamphetamine-related arrests rose by nearly twenty percent.
Operation Crystal Shield results
September 10, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Administrator Timothy Shea announced the results of Operation Crystal Shield. Over six months, the operation generated more than 750 investigations, resulting in nearly 1,840 arrests and the seizure of almost 29,000 pounds of methamphetamine, $43.3 million in drug sale proceeds, and 284 firearms.
The announcement was made in the city of St. Louis. The DEA St. Louis Division covers the states of Missouri, Kansas and the southern district of Illinois, encompassing hundreds of miles of interstate roadways. ‘Crystal Shield’ efforts in this region focused on the transshipment of methamphetamine through the highways crossing the Midwest.
Drug traffickers use the highway system to move narcotics from the Southwest border to cities located not only in the region, but also on the East Coast. Additionally, drug traffickers often transport their profits back to Mexico in cars and trucks, and the seizure of those funds severely impacts drug trafficking organizations at the command and control level.
The DEA St. Louis Division reported seizing 556 pounds of methamphetamine and $2.1 million in drug proceeds, while the DEA's San Diego Field Division, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties, reported capturing 4,462 pounds of methamphetamine and $489,000 in drug proceeds.
Mexican drug cartels shift to commercial vehicles
In the DEA's El Paso Division, which serves El Paso, Alpine, and Midland in Texas, as well as all of New Mexico, 919 pounds of meth were seized with an estimated value of $1.65 million.
DEA El Paso Special Agent-in-Charge Kyle Williamson explained to TV station KVIA ABC-7 that El Paso offers an access point to the entire U.S. Interstate Highway System, making the city integral to the drug trade. Its numerous points of entry facilitate the introduction of crystal meth into the country.
On March 23, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced restrictions on non-essential travel across the international borders. These restrictions caused the Mexican drug cartels to favor the use of commercial vehicles in their smuggling efforts, explains DEA Special Agent Kyle Williamson. Commercial vehicles are generally used for essential traffic, and the volume of commercial traffic through Customs and Border Protection (CBP) ports of entry has been less sharply reduced. When there is less traffic, it is easier for CBP officers to identify a smuggler.
This development helps to explain the recent series of CBP announcements of multi-million dollar seizures of methamphetamine hidden in commercial shipments. Consider:
- March 26, 2020: CBP Field Operations Seizes Nearly $37 Million in Methamphetamine within Commercial Shipment
- June 1, 2020: CBP Field Operations Seizes Nearly $2 Million in Methamphetamine at Hidalgo and Pharr International Bridges
- June 22, 2020: CBP Field Operations Seizes $3.1 Million in Methamphetamine at Pharr International Bridge
- June 29, 2020: CBP Field Operations Seizes Over $11 Million in Methamphetamine within Commercial Bus
- July 9, 2020: CBP Officers Seize $3.7 Million in Methamphetamine at Pharr International Bridge
- August 5, 2020: CBP Field Operations Discovers $16 Million Worth of Methamphetamine at Pharr International Bridge
- August 11, 2020: Laredo Officers Seize Methamphetamine Worth Over $18 Million in Street Value
- August 17, 2020: Laredo Officers Seize Methamphetamine Worth Over $9 Million in Street Value