(NewsNation) — Cartels remain innovative in their approach to trafficking drugs across national borders, creating paths for fentanyl and other substances to flow into the United States.
Coconuts, crutches, car batteries, coffee cans and carrots all have one thing in common — they’ve been packed with drugs and shipped to the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers made a historic fentanyl and methamphetamine bust this week at Andrade Port of Entry in California. The stop yielded more than 54 pounds of fentanyl and more than 32 pounds of meth found hidden in the fuel tank of a vehicle driven by a 37-year-old U.S. citizen.
With the help of X-rays and K-9 teams, CBP officers at the Nogales port of entry have successfully stopped more than 21.6 million fentanyl pills from making it into the U.S. this fiscal year. That includes 269,200 fentanyl pills concealed in the spare tire and quarter panels of a vehicle.
Hiding drugs in car parts isn’t a new strategy for drug cartels seeking to smuggle their product over the border, but it is one of their less avant-garde approaches. Smugglers come up with new places to hide drugs year in and year out, leading to a proverbial game of whack-a-mole for border agents.
In 2016, more than a ton of marijuana was found hidden inside a shipment of fake carrots. Then in 2020, agents found $61 million worth of pot and methamphetamine inside crates of limes and nopales. That same year they found an additional $1.4 million worth of meth in a shipment of green onions.
Last August, agents removed 14,000 fentanyl pills from inside a set of crutches.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, officers have seen drugs smuggled in lollipops, furniture and wax candles. Items like lawn ornaments, produce and pet food have also been used as vehicles for drug trafficking.
Officials in Yuma County, Arizona, say 52% of narcotics are seized by officers at ports of entry, but 48% are discovered only after they’ve been smuggled in.
Those tasked with getting a substance from point A to point B aren’t always willing participants, however.
It’s not uncommon for victims of human trafficking to also be used as drug mules, furthering the “immense physical abuse and mental torture” they endure, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). At times, people forced to act as mules risk serious injury by swallowing drug-filled balloons and concealing them in their bodies.
“Stomach acids can sometimes cause the rupture of the balloons and death is very quick,” UNODC wrote in a 2012 report.
Officials working along the border say it’s a win for law enforcement when they’re able to thwart an attempted drug smuggling operation, but that doesn’t mean it’s a loss for the cartels.
“Just like any major business across this country, they will have an acceptable loss margin for damaged property, damaged goods, stolen goods. The cartel is no different,” CBP’s Nogales, Arizona, Port Director Michael W. Humphries said. “And we’ve heard that their acceptable loss margin is somewhere around 17 to 20%.”
Within a recent three-day period, CBP officers seized seven loads of narcotics traffickers were attempting to smuggle into the U.S., Humphries said.
Nearly 600,000 (597,640, to be exact) fentanyl pills were discovered. Along with the traditional method of hiding the drug in the car, the smugglers also concealed them inside their bodies or strapped them to their bodies.
“It seems every time we turn around, that (we’re) finding some new concealment method,” Humphries said.
NewsNation producer Steven Joachim contributed to this report.