U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses dogs at border crossings that are trained to detect narcotics. (Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection)

Seizures of fentanyl and overdose deaths caused by the potent narcotic have skyrocketed in El Paso, as in much of the nation.

But along with the rise in a very real public health crisis has come a “political theater” that conflates the Biden administration’s border policy with the problems of the opioid epidemic in the United States, said Jeremy Slack, professor at the University of Texas at El Paso whose research focuses on the U.S-Mexico border, drug trafficking and immigration.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is between 50 and 100 times stronger than morphine, has been linked to a rising number of overdose deaths in the United States. Between 2019 and 2020, opioid overdose deaths rose 38.1% nationwide.

In El Paso County, fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by 150% between 2019 and 2020, from 18 to 45, according to data on the county medical examiner’s website. The medical examiner did not respond to a request for the number of 2021 fentanyl-related deaths in El Paso.

Fentanyl has even made its way into El Paso County jail, where a Mexican national died from a fentanyl overdose in September.

Seizures of the drug have increased both at official ports of entry and between them, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration all reporting dramatically increased numbers in fentanyl in the greater El Paso area. As of Sept. 3, the El Paso CBP field office recorded a 825% increase in fentanyl seizures from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021 — from 35.5 pounds to 328.4.

The Texas Department of Public Safety also reports increased fentanyl seizures statewide, though the agency does not break down seizure data by region.

CBP supervisor Sandra Hawkins said that among current fentanyl seizures in the El Paso sector, 90% are smuggled by U.S. citizens, citing the current border closure for most Mexican citizens as a factor that’s led to more Americans being used for transporting drugs.

“It can be anybody from a teenager to a senior citizen,” she said, noting that cartels do sometimes target El Paso teenagers, in part because criminal penalties are lower for minors for some smuggling offenses

Fentanyl was detected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Paso del Norte border crossing in El Paso on Sept. 29, hidden in a body cavity of a 48-year-old U.S. citizen. (Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection)

Gov. Greg Abbott has often referred to the rise in fentanyl seizures as a justification for building a state-funded border wall and as a critique of the Biden administration.

When asked for a comment about fentanyl trends, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said the deployment of thousands of Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and Texas National Guard soldiers on the border is intended to address the “Biden-made crisis.”

“The Biden administration’s open border policies have opened the floodgates for this deadly drug to make its way into our communities,” Abbott said during a July bill signing ceremony for legislation that increases criminal penalties for the manufacture and distribution of fentanyl in Texas.

But Carlos Briano of the DEA said the fentanyl trend is not unique to the border.

“It’s a serious problem. But this is not just the El Paso division. You’ll find this is true of all 23 domestic divisions of the DEA,” he said.

Comparison of lethal doses of heroin, carfentanil and fentanyl. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

Slack said the conflation of Biden border policy and the rise in fentanyl seizures is “ludicrous.”

“The Biden administration has changed absolutely nothing related to border trade that would indicate more fentanyl is able to come than was under (former President) Trump. The rise in fentanyl seizures is related to its increasing popularity as well as profitability,” he said.

Heightened numbers of drug seizures are often framed differently depending on what is politically expedient, Slack said.

“We sort of use (drug seizure) statistics to say whatever we want,” he said. “(Drug seizures) are going up! ‘Oh no there’s a crisis, we’re doing a bad job.’ (Drug seizures) are going up, ‘Oh great, problem is solved!’”

In the midst of increased drug flows, local CBP officers have to strike a “delicate balance” between impeding legitimate border travel and sufficiently searching cross-border cargo to prevent illegal drugs from getting through, said CBP spokesperson Roger Maier.

“There’s significant smuggling activity and it impacts us all, even if you’re not a drug user or never have been, if you’re a border crosser this impacts you,” Maier said.

Cover photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses dogs at border crossings that are trained to detect narcotics. (Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.