The Scourge of Drug Trafficking

Most illicit drugs, and nearly all of the heroin, that enters the United States comes in over, under, and through the 1,933-mile border with Mexico. As a result, according to the DEA, Mexican traffickers remain the greatest criminal drug threat to our country. More than that, the trafficking and abuse that illicit drugs pose are a “monumental danger to our citizens and a significant challenge for our law enforcement agencies and health care systems,” this according to the DEA’s Acting Administrator, Chuck Rosenberg. The exact amounts of illicit drugs entering the U.S. through the southern border are unknown but estimates are they represent from $19-$29 billion a year in sales.

Is There an Answer?

The simple solution – it would seem – would be to build a wall on the border to keep the smugglers and drug runners out. Such is the plan being proposed by one presidential candidate.

But would it work?

Would a wall alone deliver on its promoters’ promises of security? Most heroin entering the US, according to the DEA, slips in through legal border crossings. These are the sections of the border that are already walled off. Rather than driving in drugs through unguarded segments of the southern border, smugglers overwhelmingly favor crossing the border through its most heavily secured sections. Using various smuggling methods, they conceal their contraband in a number clever ways: loaded into secret compartments in vehicles, inside cargo, car tires and gas tanks, strapped onto (and sometimes within) people’s bodies, and other creative and disturbing ways.

Traffickers have also used airports. Baggage handlers, flight attendants, TSA agents, security officers in addition to passengers have all been caught attempting to smuggle drugs into the US. Drug cartels have used fleets of hundreds of aircraft to move shipments of drugs over the border as well as using ultralights and drones.

For those traffickers who would choose to breach the wall as it exists, they have already revealed a variety of imaginative methods: scaling the wall physically, using jacks to wall lift sections, cutting the wall with special tools, using hydraulic ramps to boosting cars over the wall, throwing drugs over the wall, catapulting and shooting them over with cannons, and others. Sections of the wall have also been toppled by storm runoff.

And Tunnels

Then there are the tunnels: An increasing number of subterranean tunnels have been discovered along the border by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). According to Time Magazine, since 2001, more than 100 tunnels have been found along the border, most in Arizona with a smaller number in California – in California alone 13 have been found since 2006. Some are quite sophisticated, designed by engineers with extensive tunnel-construction experience. They have reinforced walls and ceilings, lighting systems, concrete floors, ventilation, electricity, and water drainage systems. And then there was the one with a railway system.

The Wall We Already Have

Presently, the existing wall that was built under the Secure Fence Act of 2006 covers 700 miles of the almost 2,000 mile border. That leaves more hole than fence. While it employed 7,000 construction workers, 350 engineers and 19 construction companies, it also cost $3.7 billion.

Every time a hole is broken into the border wall, it costs $1,300 to repair. According to a GAO report, the estimated cost of maintaining the 661-mile double-layered fence over the next 20 years is $6.5 billion. In his film The Fence (La Barda), documentarian Rory Kennedy makes the claim that maintenance costs of the fence we already have will be $49 billion over the next 25 years.

As far as the wall’s effectiveness is concerned, the jury on that is still out. Border agents believe the wall is a tool that helps offer protection but the GAO and U.S. Customs and Border Protection cannot accurately determine the walls benefits to border security. One of the consequences of the intensification of border security has been an increase in the number of deaths.

Why So Many Die

The original 700 miles were chosen with the strategy of sealing off the easy-to-cross urban areas near El Paso, Tijuana, and Nogales by building walls, increasing Border Patrol presence, and adding more sensors and technology. More recently, patrolling by drones has been added to the campaign. This left open large open swaths of remote and hazardous back country. In fencing off these more popular urban accesses, border crossers were forced into desert and mountain terrain in other areas, including Arizona and Texas. The result has been an increase in deaths, a fact agreed upon by everyone from policy makers to humanitarians.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, from 2000 to 2014 more than 6,000 people have died trying to migrate through the southern border. This number may be a low estimate as this it is based only on the number of bodies found.

How Much a New Border Wall Will Cost

One advantage of building the wall under the Secure Fence Act was that it addressed some of the easier and less costly areas to fence. Not all of its 700 miles is double-layered and there has been some controversy whether it was constructed properly. As almost inevitably happens with such projects, the final costs were greater than what were expected at the beginning. The remaining areas to be built could involve a substantially greater degree of difficulty. It has been argued, including by former presidential candidate Jeb Bush, that the remaining areas left to build are in terrain that makes construction impossible.

According to the GAO, the cost of building one mile of border fencing is between $2.8 million and $3.9 million, figures that may be low when figuring wall building costs in the future. Those costs could be $16 million per mile or more. The proposed wall has been described as low as 25 feet and as high as 55 feet. This makes estimating wildly variable.

Wall advocates have proposed that total costs would be in the $10-$12 billion range. Disputing this, the Washington Post fact checker estimated the cost would be more like $25 billion. Maintenance of the wall could cost as much as $750 million a year. At present, the border patrol has an operating budget of $1.4 billion.

What About the North?

Then there’s Canada. Excluding the border with Alaska, the border between Canada and the contiguous U.S. is 4,000 miles long, from Atlantic to Pacific. This is twice as long as our border with Mexico. Canada supplies large quantities of contraband drugs to the U.S. including marijuana and ecstasy. These drugs enter the country by helicopter, boat and float plane, in cattle trucks, hikers’ backpacks, and by snowmobile. Despite its double area of frontier, the Canadian border is patrolled by 1,550 agents (up from 500 in 2002) compared to the Mexican border’s 16,900 agents. From 2004 to 2006 the seizures of ecstasy being smuggled into U.S. from Canada have quadrupled. Seizures of cocaine have tripled. In a 2009 report from The National Drug Intelligence Center, it was estimated that Canada-based drug gangs generated between $33 billion and $56 billion annually from drug sales in the U.S.

Will It Stop?

A wall may make drug trafficking more inconvenient. Its effect may be an increase in the street price of drugs but as long as there is a market, as history has shown, drugs will be available. As of 2010, US residents spent more than $100 billion on illegal drugs. America’s hunger for drugs appears to be as robust as ever.

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Will Building a Border Wall Stop the Drug Smugglers?