“Just to add on, tremendous drugs pouring into the United States at levels that nobody has ever seen before. This has happened over the last three to four years in particular. The wall will stop much of the drugs from pouring into this country and poisoning our youth. We need the wall. It is imperative.”
– President Trump, remarks at a news conference with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland, Aug. 28, 2017
“That wall is also going to help us, very importantly, with the drug problem, and the massive amounts of drugs that are pouring across the southern border.”
– Trump, remarks at a rally in Phoenix, Aug. 22
“Now, we’re going to build a real wall. We’re going to build a wall that works, and it’s going to have a huge impact on the inflow of drugs coming across. The wall is almost – that could be one of the main reasons you have to have it. It’s an additional tool to stop the inflow of drugs into our country.”
– Trump, remarks at a speech to law enforcement, July 28
One of President Donald Trump’s signature campaign promises was building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal immigration. He also insisted that somehow Mexico would reimburse the United States for the cost, but in the meantime he has pushed for start-up funding despite skepticism in Congress.
Increasingly, the president has argued that the wall will not only block illegal immigrants but also will stem the flow of drugs coming into the United States from Mexico. Trump repeats this idea often. During rallies. At news conferences. On Twitter.
“We need a wall. We also need it, though, for the drugs, because the drugs aren’t going through walls very easily – especially the walls that I build,” the former real estate investor told law enforcement agents on July 28. “I’m a very good builder.”
Would it “stop much of the drugs from pouring into this country,” as the president claims?
Trump has not offered detailed specifications for the wall. On Feb. 9, 2016, he said the wall should be 30 to 45 feet high. But as the Fact Checker previously pointed out, a wall of that size would cost significantly more than the $8 billion to $12 billion Trump previously suggested. Bernstein Research estimates the wall could cost as much as $25 billion. An internal Department of Homeland Security estimate said it would cost as much as $21.6 billion, according to Reuters.
DHS’s request for proposals called for two versions of the wall: A reinforced concrete barrier wall as Trump described and a see-through wall between 18 and 30 feet high, capable of withstanding digging six feet below the surface.
Can either of these two versions curb drug trafficking? In short, no.
Every year, tons (literally) of drugs are smuggled across the southern border and into the United States. In November 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency released a comprehensive report assessing the threat illicit drugs pose to the United States, listing Mexican drug cartels as the biggest drug threat. Six main cartels smuggle “multi-ton quantities” of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana out of Mexico and into the United States, according to the 192-page report. The cartels operate complex supply chains that enable them to sell drugs from coast to coast.
The majority of the illicit drugs enter the United States through legal ports of entry, according to the DEA report. Traffickers conceal the drugs in hidden compartments within passenger cars or hide them alongside other legal cargo in tractor trailers and drive the illicit substances right into the United States. (This was even a plot line for the 2013 Hollywood farce “We’re the Millers.”) Increasingly, traffickers are using more sophisticated methods such as dissolving methamphetamine and cocaine into innocuous liquids.
Between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016, officers at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol seized 1.29 million pounds of marijuana and 4,184 pounds of cocaine at country’s nine southwest border crossings, representing 99.8 percent of the agency’s marijuana seizures and 76.4 percent of its cocaine seizures for that year. Yet millions of pounds still make it through.
Many drugs are also smuggled through elaborately built subterranean tunnels that start in Mexico and end inside of stash houses in the United States, according to the report. As of March 2016, authorities have discovered 224 tunnels along the southwest border since 1990. The tunnels primarily snake under the ground in California and Arizona. In some cases, the tunnels can be up to 70 feet beneath the surface; a 40-foot concrete wall would only have a foundation seven feet deep, according to the Bernstein estimate. Traffickers are also turning to advanced technology and flying drugs over the border using unmanned drones, according to the DEA report.
A wall, no matter how well built, does not address drugs entering the United States via these routes. Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and author of a report on the real cost of Trump’s wall, calls the idea of a physical barrier stopping drugs a “permanent illusion.”
“It’s selling snake oil,” she said. “No physical structures have ever stopped drugs in US or elsewhere.”
Felbab-Brown found that as barriers go up, drug smugglers simply move their operations to new regions. The fence erected during the Obama administration pushed smuggling into cities such as Tijuana, she said. Then, once law enforcement cracked down in Tijuana, smugglers moved back into rural areas.
Trump’s wall proposal neither addresses the reality of drug trafficking into the United States nor key facts of the nation’s drug crisis. In 2014, prescription drugs killed more than twice as many people as heroin and almost five times as many people as cocaine, according the Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics. Unlike cocaine and heroin, prescription drugs are not as widely trafficked from Mexico.
In 2015, opioid overdoses killed more than 33,000 people, according to the CDC. Nearly half of all the overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid, the CDC found. Fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, can be easily ordered online, even directly from China.
On March 29, Trump signed an executive order establishing a commission to combat the opioid crisis. On July 31, the commission released an interim report detailing its strategy for addressing the epidemic. While the task force asks the president to prioritize funding for DHS and Customs and Border Patrol to develop sensors that can detect fentanyl, shipped in packages via the mail, the commission does not call for funding for Trump’s wall. Instead, the commission places the genesis of the drug crisis squarely within the United States.
“Four out of every five new heroin users begin with nonmedical use of prescription opioids,” the commission wrote. “In other words, Mr. President, this crisis began in our nation’s health care system.”
The White House did not respond to repeated requests for information on why the president believes the wall would halt drug smuggling.
The Pinocchio Test
Most drugs come into the United States across the southern border with Mexico. But a wall would not limit this illegal trade, as much of it travels through legal borders or under tunnels unaffected by any possible physical barrier. Yet Trump ignores these undisputed facts as he seeks to drum up support for the concrete construction by saying it will help solve the nation’s deadly drug crisis.
Even if the wall could curb illicit drug trafficking, it would have a minimal impact on the death toll from drug abuse. Prescription drug overdoses claim more lives than cocaine and heroin overdoses combined. Moreover, the opioid epidemic started with the overprescribing of legal painkillers – a fact his own opioid commission urged the president to acknowledge.
The president claims his wall would stop much of the drugs from entering the country, but that’s simply a fantasy based on no facts. He earns Four Pinocchios.
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