Will President Trump's Border Wall Keep Drugs Out Of The U.S.?

21 hours ago
Originally published on February 20, 2019 7:21 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Even as he declared a national emergency on Friday, President Trump predicted he would be sued.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And they will sue us in the 9th Circuit, even though it shouldn't be there. And we will possibly get a bad ruling. And then we'll get another bad ruling. And then we'll end up in the Supreme Court. And hopefully, we'll get a fair shake, and we'll win in the Supreme Court.

INSKEEP: At least the first part of the president's prediction has already proven correct. Sixteen states brought a lawsuit saying that he overstepped his authority in seeking to spend money that Congress did not allocate for a border wall. The president told reporters yesterday he had a right to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We need strong borders. We have to stop drugs and crime and criminals and human trafficking. And we have to stop all of those things that a strong wall will stop.

INSKEEP: Will it? The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has reported that the vast majority of drugs, illegal drugs, come through legal ports of entry. So where does a wall fit in? Jack Riley spent decades at the DEA, and his cases included the chase for drug kingpin El Chapo Guzman.

Mr. Riley, good morning, sir.

JACK RILEY: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: He's in our studios in New York, by the way.

Is the lack of an extra couple-hundred miles of border wall, which is what we're talking about here, is that a national emergency?

RILEY: Not in my mind, it isn't. The wall itself - and a lot of it does exist right now - is really not going to stop the flow of narcotics into the United States. Most of that occurs at our ports of entry.

INSKEEP: Which has been quite plain and has been reported for some time. But some supporters of the president have pushed back and said, so what, they also sometimes go over land so why not build a wall?

RILEY: Yeah. You know, I'm a cop. I'm all for whatever could make this country safe. But when it comes to narcotics, what we really need to look at is increasing our technology and manpower. You only have to look three weeks ago, when CBP seized the largest load of fentanyl, the most deadly of drug we're dealing with, at the border. And it came through a checkpoint, and had we not been able to secondary search and X-ray, we would have never found it. It was concealed in a very ingenious compartment in a large truck.

INSKEEP: Do you find that it is actually easier for drug smugglers to move large shipments of drugs through legal ports of entry, where they can have a vehicle, easier than it might be with individuals walking through the desert, say?

RILEY: There's no question in my mind, and here's why. If you look at their ability to shotgun the border - and we're only searching and X-raying maybe 35 percent. So if you're a guy like Chapo Guzman, and you're sitting on the mountain in Sinaloa, and you say that we're going to shotgun the border today with 10 different vehicles, each containing 10 kilos of heroin, you got about a 60-70 percent chance of winning. And that makes complete business sense for the volumes of drugs. For them to move the volume of drugs through desolate, unwalled areas just does not make good business sense.

And here's the other thing. In years of managing and doing investigations along the border, speaking with cooperating defendants, informants and reviewing much of our electronic surveillance, we just don't have the evidence that the major cartels are getting it into the country that way.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand a metaphor you used. When you said shot-gunning the border, of course, when you fire a shotgun, many pellets come out at the same time. That's what you mean by sending many trucks toward the border that might have many shipments of drugs, and some of them presumably will get through?

RILEY: Yeah. I mean, it's vehicles of any type - buses, cars, trucks. You name it. If they can conceal it, they're going to use it. And that's where the business sense really takes over for the cartels. That's part of their business model. I think another important point people don't understand is once you clear the ports of entry, you are very, very close to accessing interstate and large highway systems. So it allows them to move the dope on down the road.

INSKEEP: So you would like to take those few-billion dollars and do what, instead? Would you improve scanning technology at legal ports of entry so that more than a small percentage, a relatively small percentage, gets scanned?

RILEY: Absolutely. I would increase manpower and technology all along the border. And I think that's really important as we look to the future because you need to understand the cartels themselves. Law enforcement, obviously, has limited resources, and we have to play by the rules. The cartels have unlimited resources, and they simply make up the rules.

INSKEEP: You know, we spoke the other day on this program with the police chief of Tucson, Ariz., and he made it clear that his real concern was not drug interdiction - not that it was pointless, but he was actually worried about drug addiction. He was worried about cutting off the demand for drugs, rather than worrying so much about the supply.

RILEY: Yeah. I think that's a good point. You know what a real national emergency is? It's 120-some-odd people each day in this United States dying of drug overdose. And much of that is opioid related. It's estimated now that nearly 70,000 of our citizens will lose their life in the coming year because of drug abuse. That's a national emergency.

INSKEEP: Is a wall going to save any of those lives?

RILEY: Well, certainly, a wall would slow down, I think, illegal immigration, migration from aliens. But it will have little effect on the large amount of narcotics that are coming into the country.

INSKEEP: You are suggesting, I think, that the whole discussion of drug traffic is a diversion here. This is really about attempting to stop people.

RILEY: I believe it is. And for the life of me, I just don't understand why the administration doesn't listen to the experts who have been doing this a very, very long time and can provide the right advice and still get the job done.

INSKEEP: You believe that the things you're saying to me about the relative uselessness of a wall are - that's a mainstream law enforcement view?

RILEY: I certainly think for - when you look at the resources available to DEA and other agencies, we're about 500, 600 agents down our authorized strength. I think money could be well spent. And then look at the treatment and education issue to back up, really, the national issue.

INSKEEP: Authorized strength, that is the number of agents that you can legally hire if Congress then gives you the money, but Congress has come up short on the money.

RILEY: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: Mr. Riley, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

RILEY: It's been my pleasure.

INSKEEP: Former deputy drug enforcement administrator Jack Riley. He's also author of a new book, called, "Drug Warrior: Inside The Hunt For El Chapo And The Rise Of America's Opioids Crisis." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.