Drug Trafficking – How Drugs Get Here

Passing through security in the airport or subjecting your luggage to screening at the border is a notoriously serious affair in the U.S. And while this has only increased since 9/11, these transit hubs and points of entry (POEs) remain highly important in the federal government’s war on drugs, as law enforcement attempts to make bulk busts that will cripple illegal narcotics distribution on the street. Tonight’s episode of Drugs, Inc. follows a drug dealer named Clement who helps traffic heroin from various POEs to their markets.

Although it’s difficult to measure the full size of the illegal U.S. drug markets, the U.N. estimates that the value of all drugs sold in America amounts to $150 billion annually. And there are variations, the majority of the materials used to make illegal narcotics comes from outside the U.S. But over the past 40 years, the federal government has heavily invested in stopping the flow of drugs into the country. So how do drugs continue to enter America on a massive scale?

As it happens, the oldest drug trafficking method is  still the most popular. Overland smuggling in cars and trucks exceeds all other methods of drug trafficking combined. According to the Department of Justice’s 2009 drug seizure analysis, over 97 percent of all drugs captured in transit were found in cars and trucks. Now, this data should be taken with a grain of salt: the seizures represent only the amount that law enforcement intercepted – it’s not a representative sample. Further, it is somewhat unclear at what point the drugs were seized – it’s virtually inevitable that all packaged drugs will be transported by a vehicle at some point, even if they arrived in the U.S. by air, sea or on foot. Still, seizures at land borders still eclipse drugs seized at other points of entry.

While most drugs are smuggled into the U.S. in trucks from Mexico, oversees shipping represents a proportion of the total drugs trafficked into the country. According to the Department of Justice, these goods arrive in small self-submersible vehicles (mini-submarines) or large container ships, concealed in rarely-checked bins among legitimate cargo. Smaller amounts are sometimes transported on fishing or recreational boats or stowed away by passengers or crew on cruise ships. According to a report released by the Woodrow Wilson Center, Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s tough anti-trafficking tactics forced some Mexican drug trafficking organization to move their operations to the Caribbean and transport their product by sea.

The final major means of transporting drugs into the U.S. is by air. Air smuggling has declined since 9/11, most likely because of significant practical challenges. Relative to other forms of transportation, non-commercial planes are few, increasing scrutiny on suspicious planes bound from out of the country. Cargo stowed aboard planes is also in a smaller pool, and easier to inspect than cans aboard container ships.

Drug traffickers have explored countless ways to exploit geographic loopholes in the U.S. border protection, smuggling drugs through creative locations and means. But the vast majority of smuggling is funneled through just a handful of cities and areas. The federal government classifies these as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs), which represent counties with 60 percent of the U.S. population. According to the Department of Justice report, 88 percent of all drug seizures occurred at just 20 points of entry.

As long as the U.S. demand for legal drugs holds firm, drug trafficking organizations will continue to find new ways to get drugs into the country. Of course, it’s once they’re inside the U.S. that many traffickers get really creative.

Tune in for a new episode of Drugs, Inc. tonight at 9 PM EST.


  1. Frank
    August 27, 2014, 7:13 pm

    On too many of your documentaries the “background” music
    Competes with the dialog