A new US government report on lesser-used drug trafficking techniques such as tunnels and ultralight aircraft further undermines claims that building a border wall will halt the flow of illegal drugs into the country.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released May 1 analyses the extent of several lesser-used drug smuggling methods that have arisen in response to increased security on overland routes, and it assesses the efficacy of attempts to combat them.
The study focuses on underground tunnels, ultralight aircraft and maritime smuggling using open-hulled “panga” boats and recreational vessels.
Analyzing data from 2011 to 2016 from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the GAO identified a total of 67 cross-border tunnels, 534 ultralight aircraft incursions and 309 incidents involving panga or recreational boats during that period.
However, the report notes, the data suggests a general decline in the use of these tactics over that timeframe. For example, the number of tunnels discovered by DHS dropped by half, from 18 in 2011 to just nine in 2016. (See GAO graphic below)
The types of tunnels analyzed vary from sophisticated and lengthy structures with electricity, ventilation and even railways, to rudimentary short and shallow holes.
Tunnel discoveries have been clustered around the southwest border, with over 90 percent made in the sectors of Tucson, Arizona or San Diego, California. Out of the 23 seizures made in connection with these tunnels, 21 of them involved marijuana.
The number of ultralight aircraft incursions registered by DHS dropped even more dramatically, from nearly 200 in 2011 to less than 30 in 2016. (See GAO graphic below)
The use of ultralight aircraft was also concentrated along the southwest border, with all but one incident taking place in either California, Texas, Arizona or New Mexico.
As with the tunnels, the aircraft were predominantly used to move marijuana, which accounted for 98 percent of associated seizures. The preference for marijuana is likely a result of the fact that most pilots work as subcontractors for drug traffickers and are financially responsible for the load, the report notes. If, for example, a pilot lost 100 kilograms of cocaine, it would cost him much more than losing a 100 kilograms of marijuana, which is comparatively much cheaper by weight.
The number of registered smuggling incidents involving maritime vessels climbed from nearly 50 in 2011 to more than 80 in 2013, but fell to about 30 in 2016. (See GAO graphic below)
The most popular maritime method studied was the panga boast, which accounted for nearly 65 percent of the 309 logged incidents, with the rest involving recreational vessels. Around 76 percent of incidents took place on the West Coast, specifically California, with the rest spread around the southeast coast, northeast coast, and the southwest border.
Again, this smuggling method appears to be more popular for smuggling marijuana, which accounted for nearly 86 percent of connected seizures, compared to nearly 14 percent for cocaine and less than 1 percent for methamphetamine.
Not only have all of these smuggling methods seemingly declined in popularity in recent years, they also appear to account for a tiny percentage of total smuggling. In 2015, for example, DHS recorded just 49 seizures involving these methods out of 12,900 seizures overall.
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There are several conclusions to draw from the GAO report and each of them undermines the logic behind US President Donald Trump’s claims that building a wall along the US-Mexico border will significantly stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.
Firstly, the report demonstrates how these techniques remain minority methods, generally favored only for moving bulky shipments of marijuana. Moreover, they appear to be in decline even in the absence of a wall. The reason for this, as the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) notes, is that by far the most common method of smuggling is still through official points of entry. Far from using underground railways or airdrops, most drugs enter the United States concealed in passenger vehicles or hidden among legitimate goods on freight vehicles, something that will not be significantly impacted by a border wall.
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However, while these alternative methods remain relatively uncommon, they are also a reminder of the ingenuity and innovation of drug trafficking networks. This ability to react to the challenges posed by law enforcement also undermines the logic of Trump’s wall. While a physical barrier may impact another lesser-used, although still common form of smuggling — backpackers carrying drugs across on clandestine overland trails — traffickers are more than capable of adapting new methods to compensate.
Finally, the report offers advice on how US authorities could improve their organization and operations to better tackle these types of smuggling. The suggestions vary widely, and include improving detection technology such as radars and sensors, administrative actions such as improving interagency coordination, and better techniques for gathering and analyzing information and intelligence. The report does not mention a physical barrier among the potential solutions to this problem.