US military forces patrolling the country’s southern approaches are under-resourced and overwhelmed by the flow of drugs and contraband coming north, military and Coast Guard leaders said in recent weeks.
Both US Southern Command, which oversees military operations beyond Mexico’s southern border, and the US Coast Guard, have been strained by the scope of their duties and limitations on their budgets.
As a result, their units can confront less than one-third of the drug shipments making their way to the US.
“We continue to have these shortfalls,” Adm. Kurt Tidd, SouthCom chief, told the Senate Committee on Armed Services during testimony last week.
“We continue to be able to see a significant amount of traffic towards the Central American peninsula,” Tidd added. “Unfortunately we only have the resources to be able to intercept about 25%.”
When asked by Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain what he needed to boost that number to 100%, Tidd said, “Simply put: more ships, more aircraft.”
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Stuffed chili peppers and fake carrots
Drug traffickers have mixed legitimate business with their illicit activities, in part so that the former can conceal the latter. Vaunted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, now awaiting trial in the US, was no exception.
“He opened a cannery in Guadalajara and began producing thousands of cans stamped ‘Comadre Jalapeños,’ stuffing them with cocaine,” Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in a 2012 New York Times Magazine profile of Guzman, before “vacuum-sealing them and shipping them to Mexican-owned grocery stores in California.”
In one instance, according to a court in San Diego, 1,400 boxes of canned peppers, filled with “hundreds of kilos of cocaine,” were intercepted at the border.
In January 2016, agents in Texas discovered a shipment of marijuana wrapped in orange tape and a concealed within a cargo of carrots. The bust uncovered more than a ton of weed worth a half-million dollars.
In October 2016, Customs and Border Protection agents stopped a tractor trailer loaded with a commercial shipment of carrots. Among the carrots, agents found 159 packages of 88 pounds worth of what was thought to be meth.
Watermelons, pineapples, and other produce
In February 2014, just a few days before Guzman was captured for the second time, it was reported that authorities in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, seized more than 4,000 cucumbers and plantains stuffed with cocaine.
In another case, a checkpoint in Arizona came across a shipment of marijuana that had been packaged in green plastic with yellow streaks — giving the bundles the appearance of watermelons.
Authorities on the US-Mexico border have also discovered crystal meth hidden in pineapples.
Drugs hidden within food shipments can make it deep into the US. In December 2016, police in Chicago were tipped off to the arrival of a tomato shipment with 54 kilos of cocaine in it — drugs with a street value of almost $7 million.
Bananas are especially popular
Colombia is a major producer of bananas. Colombia is also a major producer of cocaine.
Traffickers have seized on that overlap.
In September, Spanish police busted a 2,000-pound cocaine haul hidden in a commercial shipment of bananas in the southern city of Sevilla.
The bananas don’t have to be real, however.
In November, Spanish police in the southern coastal city of Malaga and the Mediterranean coast city of Valencia uncovered 37.5 pounds of cocaine — just over 15 pounds of it concealed in fake bananas made of resin, with the rest hidden in the flaps of the cardboard boxes the bananas were shipped in.
In August 2014, CBP officers at George Bush airport in Houston intercepted nine bags holding 7 ounces of cocaine hidden inside tamales, which were contained in a box of 200 tamales the traveler — a man from El Salvador — didn’t disclose to authorities.
In late October, Customs and Border Protection officers at the Morley pedestrian border crossing at Nogales, Arizona, stopped a 62-year-old man from Arizona.
A narcotics-detecting canine found nearly 3 pounds of meth hidden in hollowed-out tortillas the man was carrying.
US authorities aren’t the only ones encountering foodstuffs laden with narcotics
In July 2016, Mexican marines in the cartel-war-torn state of Colima intercepted a multiton shipment of cocaine hidden in containers of salsa and bound for Sinaloa state, the home turf of the Sinaloa cartel, from where it would almost certainly be smuggled to the US.
Frozen sharks and seafood
In 2009, Mexican marines searching a shipment of frozen sharks in Progreso, Yucatan, found packets of cocaine hidden inside the dead fish — “one of the strangest discoveries” yet made, BBC Mundo noted.
The shipment of doped-up sharks was not the only attempt to conceal narcotics in seafood.
According to Radden Keefe, Guzman also made use of fish shipments, hoping the nature of the cargo would turn away prying eyes and noses. Guzman, the Sinaloa cartel boss, packaged drugs“in truckloads of fish (which inspectors at a sweltering checkpoint might not want to detain for long).”
“The Mexico-US border is like a block of cheese with holes in it, with tunnels across it,” author and journalist Ioan Grillo told Business Insider. It’s likely that Guzmán is responsible many of those tunnels.
In the late ’80s, according to Radden Keefe’s profile of Guzman, the Sinaloa boss hired an architect to construct a short passage running roughly 200 feet from an attorney’s house in Agua Prieta in the northwestern state of Sonora to a cartel-owned warehouse in Douglas, Arizona.
Once that first tunnel was finished, Guzman instructed an associate to call their Colombian suppliers. “Tell them to send all the drugs they can,” Guzman ordered.
The Sinaloa cartel invested heavily in tunnels from then on, constructing “super-tunnels” furnished with electric lights, motorized carts, and ventilation systems that criss-crossed the US border like veins. Guzman even incorporated tunnels into his various escape routes.
“They’ve got skilled engineers making these” tunnels, Grillo said, “people who are qualified engineers, who will reinforce that tunnel, make it big, and have it so you [have] rails on them, with trains, electric lights, air vents.”
“The border patrol are constantly filling these up with cement, constantly blocking these things,” Grillo added.
The Sinaloa cartel under the leadership of Guzman emerged on the scene in the early 1990s, moving drugs over a single route into Arizona. It soon expanded into shipping by air, moving cocaine on small private airplanes as well as in luggage on larger flights.
“I went to the military base of the Mexican army in Sinaloa, in Culiacan, and they had more than 100 light aircraft they’d seized from drug traffickers … And these were only the ones they’d seized,” Grillo told Business Insider.
“They actually put them in a military base because at first they had them in the regular airport, and the drug traffickers used to go in and take them back,” he added.
According to Radden Keefe, “Cartel operatives … eventually [moved drugs] on their own 747s, which they could load with as much as 13 tons of cocaine.”
Narco subs — either full-fledged submarines or self-propelled semisubmersibles — are one of the most advanced and ambitious methods by which traffickers move narcotics.
Traffickers’ first forays into undersea transport were humble.
They had “crude semi-submersibles at first, then fully submersible subs, conceived by engineers and constructed under the canopy of the Amazon, [which were] then floated downriver in pieces and assembled at the coastline,” according to Radden Keefe.
“I cannot image what the guys in these submarines are going through, sitting there underneath the ocean in one of these homemade submarines,” Grillo said.
Submarines of any complexity are a costly undertaking, but the investment was minimal compared to the profits traffickers like Guzman have reaped from just a handful of successfully delivered cargoes.
“They’re investing tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in some of these submarines, which, again, is nothing when you see the profits of the cocaine trade,” Grillo noted. “I mean, the cocaine trade makes billions and billions of dollars every year.”
In September 2015, a 26-pound bundle of marijuana, possibly carried by a drone, crashed through a home in Nogales, near the Mexican border.
“It’s all right on top of our dog’s house,” said the homeowner. “It just made a perfectly round hole through our carport.”
Just have drones have been used to get contraband into the US, people have attempted to use them to get contraband into prisons.
A Maryland inmate serving a life sentence for murder and two other men were convicted of conspiring to smuggle drugs and pornography into a prison with a drone in March 2016.
The US authorities have thrown up many barriers to the flow of drugs from Mexico. Guzman and other smugglers, in response, just throw their bundles higher.
“We’ve seen some incredible things, like cartels using big catapults to simply throw drugs over the border,” Grillo told Business Insider. “They just put the drugs there and, whoom! — over the border fence, and then somebody picks it up on the other side.”
Catapults have been discovered on multiple occasions, and some of them capable of flinging drug packets 100 meters. The use of a centuries-old piece of technology was especially galling for US officials.
“They erect this fence” on the US side, Michael Braun, a former DEA official, told Radden Keefe, “only to go out there a few days later and discover that these guys have a catapult, and they’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side.”
In February, just a few weeks after President Donald Trump — he of the vaunted border wall — took office, US agents on the border came across another catapult strapped to an existing section of border fence. Two bundles of nearly 50 pounds of marijuana were found near by.
Drug traffickers have taken advantage of the millions of cars and trucks that cross between the US and Mexico every year, and inspectors at border checkpoints have found a variety of secret compartments and stashes in automobiles.
“Classic trap cars,” as Grillo described them, “these cars they build up in these workshops with these great hiding places, hiding drugs inside the gas tanks so that the customs people have to cut it open with a blow torch [in order] to check this thing out.”
According to BBC Mundo, drugs have been hidden in tires and gas tanks and disguised as parts of the engine. Cars aren’t the only machinery used to ship drugs, though.
Mexican officials in Progreso, a port city in Yucatan state, found diluted cocaine in the insulating oil being shipped with electrical transformers. The cargo had arrived from Argentina.
In January, Customs and Border Protection officials in Cincinnati came across a package from Mexico, labeled “Mexican stone crafts.” The package contained a concrete decorative snail statue that an X-ray inspection showed had “interior anomalies.”
Inside, the agents found just over 53 pounds of methamphetamine. The statue had been sent from Mexico City and was destined for Lawrenceville, Georgia.
CBP agents stopped a 16-year-old attempting to cross into the US from Sonora, Mexico, in mid-September.
A narcotics-detecting canine directed their attention to an Xbox the traveler was carrying, and an inspection revealed 3 pounds of meth worth about $10,000 hidden inside.
An “unusually heavy” pair of sneakers alerted border agents in El Paso, Texas, that a smuggling attempt may have been afoot.
A woman from Ciudad Juarez was stopped on September 5 as she tried to pass through the Ysleta international pedestrian crossing. During an inspection, CBP agents noticed the shoes she was wearing were heavy and that the inner soles were “thick and bulky.”
After an X-ray revealed an anomaly in the soles, agents probed them, uncovering a white powder that tested positive for cocaine — 1.32 pounds in total.
The human body
As long as people have been moving illicit cargo, they’ve been moving it on their bodies.
The best-known modern example is the drug mule. Most mules ingest drug packets — usually tightly wrapped balloons or condoms — by swallowing them and transporting them across borders in their stomachs.
This has huge risks. A 24-year-old Brazilian man on a flight to Dublin from Lisbon in October 2015 became agitated, collapsed, and later died after one of 80 cocaine pellets, holding nearly 2 pounds of cocaine, burst in his stomach.
In another recent case, a Colombian woman flying into Berlin was stopped and searched by airport officials. The woman, who had complained of severe pain, eventually admitted she was carrying 2.2 pounds of cocaine inside recently inserted breast implants.
Tidd’s comments echo remarks he made last year on the subject, when he told lawmakers his units did not have the resources to interdict their goal of 40% of the illegal traffic moving from Central and South America to the US.
“I do not have the ships, I do not have the aircraft, to be able to execute the detection-monitoring mission to the level that has been established for us to achieve,” Tidd said at the time.
Tidd’s most recent testimony comes just a few weeks after Vice Adm. Charles Ray, the Coast Guard’s deputy commandant for operations, made similar statements about his command’s struggles.
US House of Representatives
“However, resource constraints and a lack of capable surface assets allow the US Coast Guard to only attack our target [in] 30% of the known cases that we have good intelligence, really high-confidence intelligence,” Ray told the House Homeland Security Committee in mid-February.
“As a result of the lack of resources, last year, we were prevented from getting after 580 known smuggling events, and those shipments made their way north.”
The allotment of funding and material is a political process, and commanders have an interest in underlining in stark terms the challenges they face in order to secure resources — especially in the case of Southern Command, which vies with other high-profile units, like Central Command.
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But Tidd’s naval elements and the Coast Guard do face an especially active challenge in drug trafficking.
In 2012, 80% of the drugs smuggled into the US were thought to come via maritime routes, according to US Foreign Military Studies Office data. Of that amount, 30% was thought to come in aboard hard-to-detect narco submarines.
US Coast Guard
Tidd and Ray said constraints on men and material had left both their commands at a disadvantage.
“We’re seeing some significant improvement on the part of some of our partner nations in their ability to be able to intercept [drugs], but we still watch far more go by than we can actually act on,” Tidd told the Senate committee.
Due to a lack of sustained Navy presence in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific over the last four years, Ray said, “our Coast Guard has doubled down our presence in the region, and we are the armed force in the maritime approaches to the US. … [And] as I’ve said, we just don’t have the assets to address all the intelligence that we have.”
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