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Arrests of U.S. citizens in border drug smuggling rise as COVID-19 travel restrictions limit who can cross

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U.S.-Mexico border travel restrictions have not only affected lawful cross-border activity, but also illicit border crossings, including smuggling operations. Borderwide drug smuggling arrests of U.S. citizens have increased 47 percent this fiscal year.

Since March 21, the border has been closed to all but “essential” travel in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, U.S. citizens and permanent residents have not been denied re-entry into the United States. The shutdown has disproportionately impacted Mexican nationals with border crossing cards or tourist visas who are no longer allowed into the United States via land ports of entry for “non-essential” travel. 

Since border travel is restricted, the labor of smuggling is increasingly being done by U.S. citizens. Consequently, U.S. citizen arrests for drug smuggling have gone up in El Paso by more than 77 percent in fiscal year 2020 as of Sept. 2, compared to 2019. The fiscal year ends Sept.30.

“We have always seen a mix of nationalities being employed by smuggling organizations to move their product across the border at area ports. But because their options are limited we are seeing significantly more U.S. citizens being utilized by the smuggling groups at the ports of entry,” said Roger Maier, spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, commenting specifically on drug smuggling. 

When it comes to the smuggling of undocumented migrants outside of legal ports of entry, the impacts of heightened travel restrictions at the border are less clear.

It’s unlikely that there would be such a pronounced increase of involvement by U.S. citizens, said Valeria Morales, spokesperson for the El Paso Border Patrol. “Most people that pick up aliens in the U.S. are (already) either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents — it’s normally someone who lives here legally,” Morales said.

Jeremy Slack, professor of anthropology at UTEP and author of “Deported to Death: How Drug Violence is Changing Migration on the US-Mexico Border,” clarified some of the citizenship trends in different migrant smuggling roles. 

“There’s all these different jobs that are encompassed in (human smuggling at the border). The people that walk someone through the desert are usually Mexicans who either are from or have lived for quite some time along the US-Mexico border. Usually men, not necessarily old, older than teenagers, but a lot of teenagers do it too. Then the jobs like your pick-up people, your truckers, your other types of transports — that’s something that’s been a long history of U.S. citizens and legal residents involved with it,” Slack said. 

The number of prosecutions for bringing in and harboring aliens (the crime that people who help to smuggle migrants tend to be charged with) is down 7.7 percent this year compared to a year ago, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse university, which tracks federal criminal justice data.

Some smuggling experts say that travel restrictions at the border have potentially led to an increase in the price that migrants pay smugglers to be transported into the United States. 

“(Increased) border enforcement does make it harder to cross the border, but it also raises the value of smuggling. It raises the price and it raises the extent to which people can’t do it on their own, they have to pay somebody else to do it for them,” said Josiah Heyman, professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and smuggling researcher.

Customs and Border Protection officers in El Paso seized 34.8 pounds of crystal meth in August from an 18-year-old US citizen. The drugs were found in the seats of a 2008 Jeep Compass. (Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection.)

Slack agrees that the heightened restrictions at the ports of entry have probably resulted in driving the prices up for migrant smuggling.  “We do see that obstacles make the prices change; navigating extra barriers means a higher cost,” he said. 

This price increase trend does not hold for illegal drug prices, however. According to Carlos Briano, spokesperson for the El Paso division of the Drug Enforcement Agency, dynamics of narcotic pricing during the COVID-19 pandemic have been complex. 

“Methamphetamine prices had increased in the early days of the COVID epidemic, but appear to have stabilized. … Prices of meth here in the El Paso region have dropped significantly (from) pre-COVID prices, but there had been reporting throughout DEA that pre-COVID, cartels were trying to push the price of meth higher because it had fallen so low. This could account for the higher pre-COVID prices,” Briano said. 

Briano noted that COVID-19 border travel restrictions initially resulted in some criminal drug organizations scaling back their operations, especially when much of commercial activity was shut down, but said that they have ramped back up as the economy has reopened. 

“They did not want to take a chance that their drug loads would be seized at the (port of entry). We also have information that some organizations did not want to work, as it was too risky. They used to do deals in parking lots or bars, but there was no traffic to blend in with. The bars were closed, and the parking lots around the city empty. As COVID restrictions began to lift, traffickers began to operate again,” he said.

Cover photo: Vehicles must pass through an x-ray inspection to enter the U.S. at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in Downtown El Paso. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, drug smuggling organizations are increasingly using U.S. citizens to bring contraband through ports of entry, officials say. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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