A wall may be a powerful symbol, but it won't be a useful tool in the war on drugs.
President Donald Trump campaigned against lax immigration laws, arguing that porous borders cause problems as diverse as drug use and terrorism, but his frenetic use of executive orders during his first week has made it difficult to keep up with everything he's planned to do, let alone contemplate the full scope of Trump's immigration doctrine.
This past weekend, as the effects of Trump's abrupt and rather vaguely worded restrictions on refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries took hold, America's airports and courts were plunged into chaos. It was enough to make you forget for a moment that Trump's executive order from earlier in week aimed at creating a border wall that probably won't do what he says it'll do.
All the way back in 2015, when Trump announced his campaign, he accused undocumented immigrants of bringing drugs into the US, a point he has repeated several times since. According to historian Kathleen Frydl, Trump voters in parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania ravaged by drug addiction may have voted for him based on the idea that the narcotics flooding their communities came from foreign countries and that Trump alone could halt this flow.
But a wall, no matter how big and beautiful a symbol it may be, can't do much to stop the flow of drugs into the US. In the grand scheme of things, a wall acts as little more than a literal speed bump that can be driven over by a literal car, according to Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. In a recent interview, Tree—whose organization opposes the war on drugs—told me about all the ways highly motivated and well-funded cartel engineers can build infrastructure that will stymie Trump's anti-drug ambitions.
VICE: Can you give me a picture of how motivated and sophisticated the cartels are when it comes to moving product?
Sanho Tree: Just ask El Chapo. His people built a tunnel over a mile long, just for his private, one-time use [to break out of prison].
That's a good point. But before we talk about tunnels, is Trump right? Are packets of drugs simply crossing the border with migrants?
Yes, that has happened. It certainly has. But we're talking about small quantities—a couple kilos per person—because they're also carrying water and their worldly possessions with them as they cross the desert. According to CPB, drug seizures along the Southwest border have dropped from 2.5 to 1.5 million pounds over the past five years—and much of that was smuggled through regular checkpoints, not desert expanses. [Elsewhere], drugs are being smuggled in by the ton—by the hundreds of tons.
All at once? What smuggling method moves multiple tons all at once?
A single narco sub can carry anywhere from six to 12 tons per run, and they're extremely hard to detect. They used to be fiberglass semi-submersibles that would stay 90 percent underwater, and in the daytime, they'd throw a blue tarp over themselves and lie still in the ocean.
You're talking about those in the past tense. What happened?
[The US] got better at detecting them, so then the narcos developed fully submersible submarines that go 50 feet below water. Again: ten tons, maybe 12 tons of drugs. Those are incredibly hard to detect. We've only caught a few, and those were mostly in ports and estuaries in Colombia and Ecuador, rather than on the open oceans. They've also developed narco torpedoes that they can bolt to the hull under the vessel.
I'm imagining something like an underwater missile, and I'm sure that's not what you mean. What's a "torpedo" in this context?.
They're towing these torpedoes now with really long cables. So if you stop the ship, you find nothing—not even anything bolted to the hull. And they can just cut that cable. So they've been able to smuggle drugs all the way to Europe in these narco torpedoes. They have release mechanisms that will drop that torpedo. There's a homing beacon attached to it that tells it to surface every couple of hours to emit an encrypted radio signal to the follow-on ship a couple miles behind, and they pick up the package.
What if the cartels don't go the maritime route? How have they dealt with the existing fence?
Much of the existing fence has these four-inch gaps. They won't let people through, which is the main purpose, but it allows [room for] wildlife, and for sand and floodwater to not build up on one side. Because of these four-inch gaps smugglers realized, Oh, let's make our drug packages three-and-three-quarters inches, and they literally passed them through the wall. So that's a problem.
Well to be fair, the wall will put the kibosh on that. Have the cartels used strategies in the past that show how they'll deal with a wall?
The first thing they did was develop ramps. They welded ramps onto flatbed trucks, drove them right up to the wall, and literally drive these SUVs over the fence or over the wall.
Brazen. But they have sneakier methods of getting stuff over, right?
Basic catapults. Some of these are truck-mounted, and they literally just fling bails of drugs over the wall. And then they go even more innovative. They adapted T-shirt cannons to shoot bails of drugs. These are big things with huge compressors, mounted on trucks. You can pull up and just start firing them over the border.
OK, that's also pretty brazen. Don't they have planes?
They used to use small Cessnas and things, and we got better at detecting those. They even tried using big airliners. They used old, old airliners that were on their last legs, and even on a one-way mission, they would still reap tremendous profits. They didn't even need to reuse the plane. Then we got better at detecting those things, so they switched to ultralights.
Ultralights fly really low under the radar, but over the wall. They had drop cages attached to them, so each one can release hundreds of pounds of drugs, and their accomplices pick them up.
The obvious next question would be about drones. Can drones carry enough to be a profitable smuggling operation?
The payloads are getting much bigger now. When you're talking about things like heroin and meth—high value things, you don't need to carry a whole lot to make a lot of money, and the drones are even better because there's no pilot to capture. They can't talk. It's low-risk to extremely high reward.
OK so if they don't do any of this Inspector Gadget shit, they still have the tunnels, right?
The tunnels are the real nightmare scenario. We've found about 100 of them so far, and there are probably hundreds more. They can operate, once they're open, 24/7, 365 days a year. And they can move in both directions, which means that they can bring in ammunition and repatriate cash. It's very difficult to move that cash around, so the tunnels are a great innovation in that sense.
Do the tunnels do the same kind of high-volume business you were talking about before?
They found one in Tijuana a couple years ago that was about ready to open. It had rails, ventilation, electricity, and all that stuff, and they found 40 tons of marijuana on the Mexican side, waiting to be put in the tunnel.
How do the cartels keep migrants from revealing where the tunnels are?
If they chose to smuggle migrants through these tunnels, they could drug them, or blindfold them, and they would never know where the tunnels are. That's the biggest concern. You go into a warehouse on one side, and you come out of a warehouse on the US side. That's it. Sometimes the manhole cover is right in the street. And there's a false bottom in a cargo van. At the moment, there's little incentive for them to work with international terrorists because the risk isn't worth it, but in theory they could also use these tunnels to smuggle WMDs or terrorists through these tunnels.
In fact, they don't even need to develop these huge tunnels anymore because of fracking technology. One of the great innovations has been horizontal drilling—you can angle the drill, and then drill in different directions, and that's what the traffickers realized. You don't need to build a full tunnel and move people through. You just need to make it like a pneumatic tube you can shoot drugs through.
Let's be generous and say the wall makes it 10 percent harder to get drugs into the US, is it worth it?
We create all these barriers, and all it does is create this snowball effect of value added artificially. All we're talking about is minimally processed agricultural and chemical commodities that are easy to produce, and cost pennies per dose to manufacture, and they're worth billions.
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