U.S. Department of Justice
From January through November 2009, U.S. seizures of illegal drugs in transit exceeded 1,626 metric tons, indicating that DTOs succeed in moving several thousand tons of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, and MDMA into the United States annually. There are unique smuggling and transportation methods associated with each drug type, but overall, drug seizure data and law enforcement reporting indicate that overland smuggling and subsequent transportation by vehicle exceed all other methods combined (see Figure 1).
Source: National Seizure System.
*Data as of December 1, 2009; table includes seizures of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, and MDMA.
Most foreign-produced illicit drugs available in the United States are smuggled into the country overland across the borders with Mexico and, to a much lesser extent, Canada (see Table 1). Overland smuggling methods are relatively consistent (see text box); however, DTOs often shift routes in response to law enforcement pressure, intercartel conflicts or other external factors. Such shifts were observed in 2008 and 2009.
Source: National Seizure System.
*Data as of December 1, 2009; totals are rounded to the nearest kilogram.
Common Overland Smuggling Methods
Mexican DTOs dominate the transportation of illicit drugs across the Southwest Border. They typically use commercial trucks and private and rental vehicles to smuggle cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin through the 25 land POEs as well as through vast areas of desert and mountainous terrain between POEs. Asian traffickers, OMGs, and Indo-Canadian drug traffickers transport significant quantities of high-potency marijuana and MDMA into the United States across the U.S.-Canada border. They use commercial trucks and private and rental vehicles to transport these drugs through more than 100 land POEs. They also use all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), aircraft, maritime vessels, and couriers on foot to smuggle drugs through vast areas between POEs.
Some smuggling routes and methods for transporting cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana into the United States appear to have shifted, in part because of heightened law enforcement pressure, changes in drug production trends, and evolving market dynamics.
There have been significant and prolonged shifts in cocaine smuggling routes that most likely have been caused by a combination of factors, particularly decreased cocaine production in Colombia, but also enhanced counterdrug efforts in Mexico, high levels of cartel violence, sustained interdiction pressure, and cocaine flow to non-U.S. markets, especially Europe. In 2007, a decline in the amount of cocaine seized along the Southwest Border in the South Texas region--the predominant cocaine smuggling route at the time--resulted in a sharp decline in the amount of cocaine seized overall. As seizure totals for South Texas declined, seizure totals for California POEs began trending upward. Since 2007, cocaine seizures at California POEs have equaled or exceeded seizure totals at South Texas POEs; nonetheless, overall seizure totals remain lower than the seizure totals recorded before the significant decline was noted. Although no single cause for the decline in overall seizures can be identified, multiple factors--including a sharp decline in cocaine production in 2008 (see Figure 7 in Cocaine section) and enhanced GOM counterdrug efforts--likely contributed to the decrease in amounts being transported from South America to Mexico and ultimately to the Southwest Border. Moreover, several exceptionally large seizures of cocaine destined for Mexico from South America in 2007 may have initiated the trend. These seizures coincide with the decline in seizures along the Southwest Border and were followed by an unprecedented decline in cocaine availability in many markets in the United States.
Conversely, heroin seizures along the Southwest Border have been increasing, most likely as a result of the growing Mexican influence in heroin production and transportation. This increase in Southwest Border heroin seizures coincides with a decrease in heroin seizures from commercial airlines. In 2008, the total amount of heroin seized along the Southwest Border (556.1 kg) exceeded the total amount of heroin seized from commercial airlines (398.1 kg) for the first time (see Table 2). This shift appears to be directly related to production trends and the changing roles of DTOs. For the past several years, production estimates for Mexican heroin, which is transported primarily overland across the Southwest Border, steadily increased to record levels in 2008. Furthermore, Mexican DTOs have become increasingly involved in the transportation of South American heroin. Meanwhile, production estimates for South American heroin, historically transported into the United States via commercial air, have steadily declined (see Figure 2). This increased availability of Mexican heroin, coupled with increased involvement of Mexican DTOs in trafficking South American heroin, likely have resulted in significantly greater quantities of heroin being transported across the Southwest Border.
Source: U.S. Government estimate.
*Estimated figure for 2007 based on partial data because of incomplete survey; estimates for 2005 and 2008 not available.
Methamphetamine and marijuana seizures have also increased along the Southwest Border, partly because of increased production. As with heroin, the increase appears to be specific to the drug. Methamphetamine production in Mexico appears to be increasing again after a sustained period of limited production resulting from laws that eventually banned pseudoephedrine in Mexico. Multiple factors may be contributing to an increase in marijuana smuggling, particularly decreased GOM cannabis eradication efforts, which have resulted in elevated production levels.
A review of the smuggling patterns for each of the major drug types reveals myriad factors--some of which are interrelated and some of which are unique to the drug--that affect modes and methods used to transport drugs into the United States. Nonetheless, it is possible that seizures of large quantities of cocaine en route to Mexico and counterdrug efforts may have impacted the ability of major DTOs to smuggle cocaine from South America to Mexico. These factors may also explain the decrease in seizures along the Southwest Border, the decline in cocaine availability in portions of the United States, and the lack of similar long-term declines in the availability of methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana.
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Significantly lesser quantities of drugs are smuggled directly into the United States by traffickers using maritime conveyances than by traffickers using overland routes. In 2009, less than 3 percent of all arrival zone drug seizures occurred on commercial and noncommercial maritime conveyances. Nevertheless, some DTOs continue to use maritime smuggling methods to move illegal drugs into the United States (see text box), and like overland smugglers, some of these maritime smugglers shifted their operations in 2008 and 2009 in response to law enforcement pressure or gaps in interdiction coverage.
Common Maritime Smuggling Methods
Various DTOs--most notably Colombian but also Dominican, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and Venezuelan--transport cocaine and lesser amounts of heroin and marijuana to the United States using a variety of conveyances, including container ships, cruise ships, commercial fishing vessels, recreation vessels, and go-fast boats. The drugs are typically concealed in hidden compartments, commingled with legitimate goods, or couriered by passenger or crew members on maritime vessels. Traffickers also have increasingly used self-propelled semisubmersibles (SPSSs)a to transport cocaine from South America to Mexico. The use of SPSSs affords traffickers the ability to covertly transport large quantities of drugs.
a. Self-propelled semisubmersible vessels are maritime vessels used by traffickers to transport illicit drugs. These vessels typically protrude only a few inches above the surface of the water, making them very difficult to detect visually. SPSSs typically have a four-man crew and are capable of carrying multiton quantities of cocaine.
Traffickers used private maritime vessels to smuggle drugs into the United States during 2009 through Puerto Rico, South Florida, South Texas, and southern California, and Mexican DTOs sometimes smuggle drugs by maritime means to avoid law enforcement scrutiny along the Southwest Border.
The primary threat from drug smuggling via private vessels is from Caribbean-based traffickers exploiting the Puerto Rico and Florida coastlines. Traffickers transported mostly cocaine from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, although they smuggled lesser amounts of heroin and MDMA, sometimes commingled with cocaine loads. Caribbean traffickers also smuggled cocaine, heroin, and marijuana from the Bahamas to areas of South Florida between Miami and Palm Beach. Seizure totals and routes remained relatively constant compared with those of previous years.
Mexican traffickers seeking to avoid scrutiny along the Southwest Border used private vessels to smuggle marijuana and cocaine into the United States during 2009. Incidents involving kilogram packages of cocaine and marijuana washing up or being found abandoned along the South Texas coastline increased, particularly in the South Padre Island area, during the first half of the year. By the end of December, more than 114 kilograms of cocaine had been recovered in the region. In comparison, only 1 kilogram was recovered in the region during 2008. Federal investigators believe that the smugglers typically depart from Tamaulipas State in northern Mexico and make short hops to the Texas coastline. Mexican traffickers also used private vessels in 2009 to smuggle marijuana from the northern Mexico state of Baja California to southern California. In fact, in 2009, more than 3.1 metric tons of marijuana were reported to have been seized from private vessels arriving in southern California, primarily the San Diego area.
Commercial maritime vessels, especially maritime containers, remain a viable conveyance for smuggling drugs directly into the United States, but seizure data and law enforcement reporting indicate that this smuggling method continues to account for a relatively small portion of the nation's illicit drug supply.
Traffickers use commercial maritime vessels to smuggle sizable quantities of drugs into the United States, but data suggest that other conveyance methods are preferred by smugglers. Traffickers often hide drugs among legitimate cargo in maritime containers, a fraction of which are inspected. Analysis of commercial maritime seizure data for 2004 through 2009 indicates that cocaine and marijuana are most often smuggled in commercial maritime vessels from Caribbean locations, such as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica, into East Coast ports in Florida and New Jersey. Traffickers also use commercial vessels to smuggle cocaine from the Dominican Republic into Puerto Rico. Smaller amounts of heroin, typically 2 kilograms or less, are occasionally smuggled by cruise ship passengers working for Caribbean trafficking organizations into East Coast ports; however, this smuggling technique appears to have declined since 2006. Seizure data indicate that methamphetamine is rarely smuggled into the United States on commercial maritime vessels.
Despite the fact that sizable quantities of drugs are seized annually from commercial maritime vessels arriving in the United States, the dominance of Mexican trafficking organizations as the primary transporters of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine to the United States results in commercial maritime seizure totals that are far less than Southwest Border seizure totals. Seizure data for 2009 show that the amount seized from commercial maritime vessels remains less than 1 percent (6,015 kg of 828,223 kg) of the amount seized at the Southwest Border. Law enforcement reporting confirms that Caribbean and South American traffickers are more likely than Mexican traffickers to take advantage of commercial maritime vessels as a smuggling conveyance to supply their much smaller U.S. distribution networks. Moreover, large quantities of drugs seized at U.S. ports are often destined for distribution in countries other than the United States. Many drug shipments concealed in commercial maritime containers by Caribbean and South American traffickers are intercepted by U.S. authorities as they transit the United States en route to markets in Europe and Asia.
The Logistics of Transporting Drug Shipments
DTOs have well-established transportation networks and often transport illicit drug shipments directly to drug markets throughout the United States. Some DTOs relinquish control by distributing illicit drugs from stash locations to traffickers who purchase these drugs and then transport the shipments themselves to distribution areas. DTOs often hire independent drug transportation groups to transport drugs, insulating themselves from law enforcement investigations and compartmentalizing trafficking operations. These transporters are hired for the sole purpose of moving drug shipments, and they operate in cells that are separate from other DTO operations. As a result, seizures of illicit drugs from transporters often yield little or no information to law enforcement officials about other DTO members or DTO operations. For example, Colombian DTOs often employ Mexican traffickers whose successful transportation networks allow these DTOs to circumvent the problems caused by law enforcement disruption of their own transportation routes.
Drug shipments are typically stashed in ranches, warehouses, residences, and trailers near primary points of entry into the United States for consolidation, distribution, and subsequent transport to drug markets throughout the United States. To transport drugs, traffickers primarily use commercial trucks and privately owned and rental vehicles equipped with hidden compartments and natural voids in the vehicles. Additionally, bulk quantities of illicit drugs are sometimes commingled with legitimate goods in commercial trucks. Many drug traffickers use postal and package delivery services to transport illicit drugs within the United States and, to a much lesser extent, use couriers and cargo shipments on aircraft, buses, and trains.
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The amount of drugs smuggled into the United States by couriers and in cargo aboard commercial aircraft is significantly less than the amount smuggled by other means. In 2009, the total amount seized from commercial aircraft for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and MDMA was less than for any other conveyance. Drug seizure data show that only 24 percent of heroin seizures, 15 percent of MDMA seizures, 6 percent of cocaine seizures, and less than 1 percent each of methamphetamine and marijuana seizures were from commercial air conveyances.
The use of commercial air to smuggle heroin into the United States is rapidly declining, while heroin smuggling over the Southwest Border is increasing.
The amount of heroin seized at commercial air POEs decreased 56.2 percent (909 kg to 398 kg) from 2004 through 2008. The decrease is partially attributable to a shift in the smuggling of South American heroin by couriers on commercial flights to overland transportation across the Southwest Border as well as increased airport interdiction activities in Colombian airports. Colombian DTOs are now, to a large extent, relying on Mexican DTOs to smuggle heroin overland into the United States rather than conducting their own air courier smuggling operations. At the same time that heroin seizures decreased at commercial air POEs, heroin seizures at Southwest Border POEs increased 44.0 percent (386 kg to 556 kg), and preliminary seizure data indicate that Southwest Border heroin seizures reached a record high in 2009 (see Table 2).
|Commercial Air POEs||909||740||529||424||398||199|
Source: National Seizure System.
*Data as of December 1, 2009.
The decline in commercial air smuggling for heroin is attributable to a number of factors, including decreasing South American heroin production and a shift to smuggling routes across the Southwest Border. Most of the heroin seized at air POEs in previous years was seized from South American heroin couriers. However, South American heroin production appears to have decreased sharply since 2003 (see Figure 2).
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There are 327 official U.S. land, maritime, and air POEs; however, a relatively few POEs account for most of the drug flow into the United States. In fact, 88 percent of all drug seizures occurred at just 20 POEs. From these and other POEs, drug shipments are transported to dozens of national and regional distribution centers through eight principal corridors to the major drug markets within the United States. (See Figure 3.)
Source: Federal, state, and local law enforcement data and reporting.
Among the eight principal drug corridors, Corridor A is particularly vital to DTOs. Corridor A is the primary route for DTOs transporting multiton quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine from the Southwest Border to eastern U.S. drug markets, many of the largest drug markets in the country. Within Corridor A, Interstate 10 as well as Interstates 8 and 20 are among those most used by drug couriers, as evidenced by drug seizure data showing that from 2008 through October 2009, nearly 19 percent of all reported interstate cocaine seizures and 7 percent of all reported interstate heroin seizures occurred on these routes.
Corridor B is also important to DTOs, especially those moving methamphetamine and marijuana produced in California or Mexico to major market areas in western, central, or eastern states. Interstates 15, 80, 70, and 40 are the leading routes through Corridor B, and seizures on these interstates accounted for 46 percent of all reported methamphetamine seizures and 31 percent of all marijuana seizures on interstates from 2008 through October 2009.
Drug couriers moving drugs through the various corridors are often destined for one of the relatively few primary U.S. drug markets, where there are large drug user populations and where drugs are further distributed to smaller markets. There are relatively little data available to objectively rank cities as leading or lesser drug markets. Nevertheless, analysis of national seizure data that identify the destination and origination of drug shipments shows that seven city areas (Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Miami, New York, and Tucson) are identified more often than any other cities as major points of both origination12 and destination for drug shipments (see Table 3).
Rio Grande City
Source: National Seizure System.
*Data as of June 30, 2009.
12. Excludes cities within the Southwest Border Arrival Zone area (within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border).
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