Working Against Corruption: How to Build a Sustainable Security Posture at Ports-of-Entry and Secure America’s Southern Border

– Executive Summary

The Final Report of the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking, published in February 2022, notes an alarming death toll attributed to synthetic opioids.[1] According to the report, drug overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 in the prior year.[2] The opioid epidemic poses an immense challenge across multiple national security domains—homeland security, law enforcement, intelligence, the legal system, public health, and the demand for drugs—with no single resolution.[3] This thesis explores one avenue: injecting a greater presence of Intelligence Community (IC) assets along the U.S. Southwest Border (SWB) to aid law enforcement operators. Without the full suite of resources available to the IC, these operators will struggle to identify and disrupt criminal smuggling activity through the SWB and into the United States.

The traditional methods for screening travelers through the SWB for illicit contraband are neither sufficient nor sustainable. A layered enforcement strategy that combines the physical presence of officers at ports of entry (POEs), assisted by technology such as x-ray machines and various sensors, is ineffective, as evidenced by the significant overdose deaths from synthetic opioids originating from Mexico. Furthermore, American officers’ inability to disrupt transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) allows the latter to leverage the SWB to amass revenue and power, creating inevitable friction with the United States, which if left unchecked damages its national security posture. The American people should expect greater resources at the SWB to slow the unprecedented overdose rates affecting the country.

The Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, published in April 2022 by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, acknowledges that, in addition to their threat to national security, Mexican TCOs present the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States.[4] According to the report, TCOs “control most of the U.S. drug market and have established varied transportation routes, have advanced communications capabilities, and hold strong affiliations with criminal groups and gangs in the United States.”[5] Although narcotics are smuggled into the United States via other methods, by air and sea, for example, they are not on the same scale as the narcotics smuggled across the SWB.[6]

Donald Trump’s tenure as U.S. president increased attention to the U.S.–Mexico border. Trump campaigned on a promise to build a wall across the entire SWB to prevent illicit narcotics and stop people with potentially nefarious intent from reaching the United States. An important component of any border security strategy includes physical barriers to accomplish this goal; however, even the most robust physical barriers remain vulnerable. Tens of thousands of travelers and hundreds of tons of cargo legally enter the United States every day through POEs, facilitating binational prosperity between the United States and Mexico. Because POEs are vital to the economic prosperity of both countries, they will forever pose a security threat. Even if an impenetrable wall were built along the SWB, illicit narcotics, terrorists, and criminal threats could easily blend in with the masses of legitimate people and cargo passing through POEs daily.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy present the following recommendations to address the threats from the flow of people through POEs:

  • Fuse investigative information and criminal intelligence to achieve successful prosecutions and, thus, disrupt criminal networks;
  • Increase access to intelligence among all stakeholders, including federal, state, territorial, local, and tribal law enforcement, to understand and successfully combat TCOs along the SWB;
  • Integrate technical and non-technical collection capabilities while operating in accordance with agency and policy limitations; and
  • Increase fusion of information-sharing capabilities among federal, state, territorial, local, and tribal partners.[7]

This thesis advocates two intelligence collection methods not explicitly mentioned in the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s report but implied in the recommendations to integrate technical and non-technical intelligence collection methods. By increasing the use of human intelligence and signals intelligence capabilities along the SWB, the United States can enhance its security posture in accordance with the aforementioned recommendations. Both intelligence collection methods require training and familiarity in the operational environments. Enforcement agencies along the border should increase the opportunities for their ground troops to receive training and gain familiarity with those vital intelligence collection functions.

Increasing the presence of officers and agents along the border, using additional canine patrol units, and employing screening technologies such as biometric recognition are all worthy endeavors to safeguard the United States. With access to the full IC tool suite and the infusion of IC resources along the SWB, officers and agents may secure POEs against criminal vulnerabilities beyond the traditional enforcement strategies they currently employ.

[1] Tom Cotton and David J. Trone, Final Report of the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022),‌publications/EP68838.html.

[2] Cotton and Trone.

[3] Cotton and Trone.

[4] Office of National Drug Control Policy, National Drug Control Strategy: Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy (Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President, 2022).

[5] Office of National Drug Control Policy, 3.

[6] Office of National Drug Control Policy.

[7] Office of National Drug Control Policy, 6.

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