How Do Illegal Drugs Cross The U.S.-Mexico Border? NPR's Michel Martin talks to Gil Kerlikowske, former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about how illicit drugs end up in the United States.


How Do Illegal Drugs Cross The U.S.-Mexico Border?

How Do Illegal Drugs Cross The U.S.-Mexico Border?

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NPR's Michel Martin talks to Gil Kerlikowske, former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about how illicit drugs end up in the United States.


We're going to spend the first part of the program today trying to answer a couple of big questions raised in the news this week. In a few minutes, we'll talk about the Federal Reserve and why the two people President Trump wants to name to a couple of vacancies are so controversial. But the first question we're going to try to answer is about illegal drugs and how they get into the country. President Trump visited a city near Mexico yesterday where a 2-mile section of fence was replaced last year. This came after days of escalating threats to Mexico.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If the drugs don't stop - Mexico can stop them if they want - we're going to tariff the cars. The cars are very big. And if that doesn't work, we're going to close the border.

MARTIN: So we thought that we would use this opportunity to ask, how do illegal drugs enter the U.S.? And what, if anything, can be done to stop it? To help us answer this question, we've called Gil Kerlikowske. He knows both the border and the problem of illegal drug trafficking well because he was director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2014 to 2017. And before that, from 2009 to 2014, he ran the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy - so a highly relevant experience. And he's with us now.

Mr. Kerlikowske, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: And thank you.

MARTIN: So, first of all, just walk me through it. How do most illegal drugs enter the U.S.?

KERLIKOWSKE: So the drugs that are actually taking the lives of people here in the United States - methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, fentanyl - almost universally come through the ports of entry along the southern border - so that is people that carry them on their bodies or even in their bodies or cars or vehicles. And then the second way is through the international postal mail service.

MARTIN: And when you say most, what do you mean? Like, 50 percent, 60 percent, 90 percent?

KERLIKOWSKE: Oh, well over 90 percent. People don't backpack or try to sneak those drugs across the border between the ports of entry because, one, they could be caught by the Border Patrol. Number two, they don't really trust those people to do that. So it's much better for them to have somebody that is taking the drugs through a port of entry where they're met on the other side of the port here in the United States, and those drugs are immediately taken.

MARTIN: So you're saying, basically, virtually all of it comes through legal ports of entry.

KERLIKOWSKE: Those drugs. The marijuana actually does come from the ports or between the ports of entry because that's very large. It's in bulk. And so they'll try and bring it across in a truck or the river or backpack it in. But remember, marijuana seizures along the border have gone down consistently over the years. We have 10 states that have legalized it and the District of Columbia. So there's an awful lot of marijuana - and very high-end, unfortunately - high-end marijuana that's grown here in the United States.

KERLIKOWSKE: So if the majority of illicit drugs or drugs that are currently illegal are coming through legal ports of entry, is there something being done that could make a scrutiny at the border more secure or more effective or could address that problem?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, there are a couple things. One - and I talked about the U.S. mail service. Almost 90 percent of the international packages, mail that comes into the country comes in through the postal service, not through UPS or FedEx. And those companies do a very good job of trying to regulate and keeping illegal things out. The postal service is a bit difficult, and that is why Congress and I supported this in a letter, pass the STOP Act, to require that packages coming in - that there would be a manifest with the information about what was in that package 24 hours in advance. That would go a long way at stopping because fentanyl, just a small amount of fentanyl, can turn a huge profit.

And so you want to try and stop it coming in, particularly through the mail service. And we need better technology to detect fentanyl coming in. But our ports of entry need improvements. Our ports of entry need additional Customs and Border Protection officers. And I believe the administration is working on that.

MARTIN: And, as you heard through the clip earlier, President Trump has blamed the drug flow on Mexico, has issued a series of kind of escalating threats if Mexico doesn't do more to address this problem. What role does Mexico play in all this? Is there something that the Mexican government could be doing that it is not now doing?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, one, the last thing you need to do is to either say bad things about Mexico and the cooperation. In the Obama administration, we had significant improvements in cooperation with our State Department and CBP with the Mexican Federal Police, with their intelligence service sharing information about drug smugglers, et cetera. They can be incredibly helpful.

But remember, too - it's - they have a drug problem within that country also. It isn't just these are all drugs coming into the United States to harm people here. Their country has a significant drug issue, too. So if you were really also interested in reducing the problem, you would look at, what does a comprehensive prevention program look like for people here in the United States - young people?

MARTIN: And finally, I am curious, though - if the mail is such an obvious place where illegal drug trafficking is happening, why is there so much public discussion about the border as opposed to the mail? I mean, is it because the mail is more mundane or because it's - you know what I mean? What - why is it that we don't hear more about that?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, you know, the optics of looking at a conveyor belt with a bunch of packages coming versus the videos and the optics of what the border looks like and people being apprehended at the border, trucks being stopped, vehicle chases where someone's involved in smuggling - quite frankly, that seems to attract more attention than a conveyor belt in one of those international mail facilities. And you're right. It should attract more attention at the mail facilities because they are a hazard.

MARTIN: That is Gil Kerlikowske. As we told you, he was the director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And before that, he ran the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Mr. Kerlikowske, thanks so much for talking to us.

KERLIKOWSKE: Thanks very much.

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