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Nearly half of U.S. fentanyl is smuggled through Nogales. Police are launching a new operation there

Arizona and the rest of the country remain in the grips of a massive opioid crisis that’s fueling nearly 2,000 overdoses a year in our state, and has gotten significantly more dangerous since the introduction of illicit fentanyl in recent years.

A new study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy revealed law enforcement seized more than 115 million pills containing fentanyl last year. That’s 2,300 times more than what was seized in 2017. 

Now, federal law enforcement on the border are announcing what they call a new effort to combat this kind of drug trafficking. It begins just across the southern border from Arizona, in Nogales, Sonora. 

It’s called Operation Plaza Strike and The Show spoke more about it with Tucson-based journalist John Washington, who’s covering the story for Arizona Luminaria.

Full conversation

JOHN WASHINGTON: It was announced as a new strategy, but critics pretty much immediately pointed out the fact that it sounds a lot like a strategy that has been used for a long time, but basically CBP or Border Patrol along with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which is the DEA, and HSI, that's Homeland Security Investigations. They are the investigations unit of ICE. They announced that they are going to launch this new strategy called Operation Plaza Strike, in which they are going to focus on the mid-level managers who are in charge of drug smuggling through Mexico and into the United States. There's a multipronged approach but basically the, the central piece of it is that they're going to target these specific plaza bosses as they're called, bring them down. And supposedly this will help lower the number of fentanyl that is crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

LAUREN GILGER: OK. Who are these plaza bosses as you call them that they're going after? What does that mean?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. So the way that it works in Mexico is Mexico is divvied up by a number of different transnational drug organizations who have really a pretty diverse portfolio of, of, of what they do and what sort of illicit activities they engage in. But at least directly south of Arizona in Sonora, most of the drugs and most of the people are smuggled through by members of the Sinaloa cartel. There's different factions within the Sinaloa cartel, but right now the Nogales Plaza, which is basically the unit that operates the Nogales area and transports drugs across into Arizona, is run by a member of the Sinaloa cartel. And so this is basically the local manager and he controls operations and gets the drugs through one way or the other.

GILGER: How much fentanyl do we know is, is smuggled through this part of the border? It's a 2,000 mile long border. How much comes through Nogales?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, a lot, percentage wise, the estimates are over 40% of all fentanyl getting to the United States is going through the Nogales Plaza, which is a huge number. It's really hard to overstate how much and how, how quickly this, this drug has been beginning to be smuggled. It is about a 2,000-fold increase in the last less than 10 years of the amount of fentanyl across the U.S. border. That's because there's almost none in like 2017. At this point, there are, you know, tens and tens of thousands or millions of pills that are getting across.

The problem is that they're, they're small, they're relatively easy to hide in comparison to say, like marijuana which comes in, you know, leaves and is not easy to compact down. So they're getting through, they're mostly getting through the ports of entry, that is like official crossing points as opposed to crossing outside or through the desert or across the river in Texas. The Department of Homeland Security's own estimates is that over 90% of all fentanyl is smuggled through the ports of entry. That means it's being carried through mostly in cars, vehicles, hidden compartments, things like that. Also, sometimes individuals strap pills to their body or ingest the pills and then later retrieve them.

GILGER: So you mentioned critics at the top. Let's talk a little bit more about some of the concerns that a strategy like this is bringing up. Tell us about those, beginning with just the idea that over policing or policing this kind of stuff in general can lead to just more violence down the road.

WASHINGTON: Yeah, the drug war is over 100 years old and I don't think anyone would really say that it's a success. If you look at just in the past couple of years, the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States is mounting alarmingly. There's been, I think almost 110,000 overdose deaths last year. You know, these strategies of cracking down on smuggling routes, cracking down on smugglers, even going after sort of the people who make or grow the drugs, none of it's really worked in the past. There are ways around all of these measures. People get inventive.

One policy expert I spoke to said that there's sort of a Darwinian approach to smuggling drugs, is that the people who aren't very good at it, get caught. People who are good at it survive and actually thrive and there's always ways to innovate and, and this is increasingly the case with these synthetic opioids, which are in many ways easier to create. You don't need fields and fields of poppies, for example. You can create this stuff basically in a lab and then with a pill press. And you can hide it more easily and you can get it across the border more easily. There's all sorts of very creative ways that people are, are getting fentanyl specifically and other kinds of drugs across into the United States.

So trying to crack down is ineffective, these critics say, but there's another thing here is, it also has produced ordinary levels of violence in Mexico. The modern drug war in Mexico started really in about 2006. And since then, the numbers are really staggering. There's 360,000-plus deaths related to the drug war and there's over 110,000 disappearances. Those are just official statistics. It's likely much more than that.

GILGER: Right. Right. So I wonder though, like, I guess what's the alternative, right? Like, doesn't law enforcement have to do something given the overdose crisis that we are seeing in America today because of drugs as deadly as fentanyl?

WASHINGTON: This is really tricky. So there have been some efforts to try to take a different approach. We saw some experiments, for example, in Oregon in the past few years where instead of criminalizing drug users, they are just really trying to concentrate on treatment. But that doesn't necessarily do away with the demand and the demand is, is a whole another ball game. I mean, how do you really address all sorts of like, the, the, the basic elements that create these kinds of demand, think about homelessness, you know, housing affordability, housing access, untreated mental and medical health issues. You know, unemployment, some of the these really big and very difficult to tackle social issues are in a lot of people's understanding what is underlying the demand but the demand is there.

I mean, we're not going to erase it no matter what we do in the next couple of years. So really as we try to think about those much bigger issues, it's how do we respond right now? And the critics to this new policy Operation Plaza Strike say, it's really not just cracking down on policing and trying to go after these plaza bosses. We really should be focusing more on treatment, on trying to help people who are potentially going to face an overdose by making it just safer to ingest the drugs or having some recourse to if, if they do ingest them, how they can not die in, in doing that.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.