In recent weeks, our national politics have been consumed with President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along our border with Mexico.
Much of the support for it is rooted in the opiate epidemic and the feeling among many, including the president, that a wall will staunch the flow of drugs coming from Mexico into our country. Many regions that voted for Trump have not only been hammered by jobs going to Mexico, but they also now watch as Mexican drugs are part of why their neighbors and loved ones are dying.
I share their outrage.
Drug trafficking north from Mexico is a pestilence, and it’s an essential factor in our national epidemic of addiction and death. (And it is no less serious than the savage violence in Mexico fueled by equally pestilential guns trafficked from the United States, by which the gravest security threat in our hemisphere is arming itself.)
Mexican drug supply — cheap, prevalent and horribly potent — hinders users attempting to recover from addiction and makes any relapse a deadly gambit.
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I witnessed a rural Indiana town descend into drug addiction, HIV outbreak. Now, hope rises.
Because it is so serious, because people are dying in record numbers from drugs smuggled up from Mexico, it must be met with serious proposals.
A wall — or better put, another wall — along our southern border would do little to stop the flow of drugs coming up from Mexico. If walls worked in that way, no drugs would enter our prisons or jails.
We already have hundreds of miles of border walls. They are where they need to be. I don’t believe they are immoral, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested. The rule of law is precious; I learned that living for a decade in Mexico, where it is too often absent. Part of the rule of law is an orderly border.
Our border walls have done what they can do
Plus, we’ve already seen what happens without physical barriers. I’ve interviewed several ex-coyotes in Tijuana, who smuggled people across from the 1970s until President Bill Clinton built the first wall there in 1993. They describe a border out of control, with hundreds of people running across every evening, for years, deluging an outmanned Border Patrol.
There were rapes, beatings. Money from illegal immigration fed the city’s underworld, police corruption. It persuaded young “campesinos” from the south to learn to smuggle, and a good number of them went on to smuggling drugs. Throngs of street vendors set up every afternoon at the borderline catering to prospective illegal crossers: selling tacos, coats, shoes, tampons, coffee, soda.
Walls and other measures restored order, ended the marketplace, protected the wetlands in the area, allowed for the peaceful use of the nearest San Diego beaches. I’ve written elsewhere how they also helped Tijuana become a more innovative town. (They also led to the consolidation of power of the city’s drug cartels, which alone had the resources to cross illegal goods and people.)
Some areas of our border with Mexico might still need walls, and existing walls will need repair. But for the most part, our border walls have done what they can do.
This is not to say the border is sealed in a literal sense. In an era of free trade and international supply chains, to truly seal a 2,000-mile border would require draconian measures — massive inspections of trucks and cars, for example — that would savage our economy. North Korea’s border is sealed.
Walls haven’t stopped the flow of drugs
But illegal border crossing is now in good measure a boutique industry, designing crossing solutions for individuals. In the Tijuana region, the cost of crossing illegally runs from $6,000 to $14,000 per person, up from a fixed rate of $300 in the early 1990s, according to many migrants I’ve interviewed over the past several years. Other regions report similar price hikes. I take this price range — beyond what most working-class immigrants can afford — to be the market’s expression of a border that is effectively closed, at least where crossers are concerned.
Central American asylum seekers have made headlines, but most have not crossed illegally. They arrive to ask for asylum. A few do get through illegally. But many of those who try to cross illegally have been stopped, which is how we’re aware of them.
Yet these walls have notably not stopped the flow of drugs. The market reflects that, too. Our heroin is cheaper and more potent than ever. Ninety percent of it comes from Mexico. Mexican methamphetamine is flooding neighborhoods; traffickers give it away as a come-on to prime demand among our country’s new population of opiate users.
Walls don’t stop these drugs. On the contrary, these drugs come through areas with walls.
Former associates testifying against Mexican drug capo Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was found guilty on all counts Tuesday at his trial in New York, described sending drugs through border crossings, areas with walls, and not through rugged, isolated unwalled areas, which is expensive, exposed, arduous. Some desert trafficking happens, but it’s relatively small in scale because it makes no business sense, given the volumes involved. Far safer and cheaper to get lost in the massive back-and-forth of people, cars and trucks at our legal ports of entry.
Or the traffickers use airports. Or the U.S. mail, through which a lot of fentanyl and its analogues arrive from China.
Heroin and fentanyl are the easiest drugs to smuggle because of their potency and ease of concealment. In its 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, the Drug Enforcement Administration noted that “because heroin is such a compact drug, it is often smuggled in small amounts, concealed in private vehicles, on the body or in body cavities, in luggage, and in shoes.” Meaning, it often comes through border checkpoints, with walls, officers and drug-sniffing dogs.
We need robust alliance, not walls, with Mexico
In an era of heroin and fentanyl, the only true bulwark against these horribly potent drugs is built through robust alliances with neighbors. Working together in small, incremental ways. That takes time. Takes willingness. Takes learning about the neighbor. (How many members of Congress can name the six Mexican states bordering our country?) It takes honestly facing our role in this — our drug demand and our guns smuggled south — and Mexico facing its historic complacency regarding its traffickers and the deadly supply of dope they provide.
Another border wall would impede a serious approach to this problem by alienating allies. It gives an excuse to those in Mexico who like to believe that any collaboration with the United States is akin to treason. Plus, it embodies the delusion that we can go it alone against an international scourge, with the added promise that it will magically transform the country. Instead, it is, I believe, a distraction, allowing us to avoid the hard daily work of building alliances, and confronting our own accountability for the knotty problem of international drug trafficking.
The opioid addiction crisis began because we believed in an easy answer to a complicated problem: one pill for everyone’s pain. Doctors could prescribe narcotic painkillers, derived from the opium poppy, indiscriminately to all pain patients without risk of addiction. The drug catastrophe we’re now living with is rooted in that myth.
The drug scourge that resulted is today too deadly to waste time on another.
Sam Quinones is a freelance journalist and author of three books of narrative nonfiction, including his latest, “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” Follow him on Twitter: @samquinones7