Dec 7, 2023 - Technology

Customs and Border Protection is using AI to crack down on fentanyl trafficking

Altana Atlas images showing the supply chain of a company indicted for trafficking fentanyl precursor chemicals. Image: Altana

The days of drug-sniffing dogs aren't over — but now Customs and Border Protection Agents (CBP) are using AI to track down the precursor chemicals used in fentanyl production in Mexico, to help stop the drug from ever being created.

Why it matters: More than 70,000 Americans died of synthetic opioid overdoses in 2021, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

What's happening: With the addition of AI systems, agents can see deeper into fentanyl supply chains, leading to bigger seizures of both finished fentanyl and the chemicals used to make it.

  • Altana, a startup that operates a global supply chain platform, is helping Customs and Border Protection staff map how fentanyl ingredients are assembled and shipped to production sites — helping to shut down both.
  • After giving every CBP agent access to the Altana Atlas as part of a $9 million contract to trace forced labor in supply chains, Altana CEO Evan Smith tells Axios the company "jumped at the chance," to expand the contract into counternarcotics.
  • "Drug trafficking was on our minds from the moment we started building the atlas," Smith said, adding "it's just been very hard without AI techniques to understand these illicit obfuscated supply chains."

Details: Altana built and maintains a knowledge graph that maps complicated relationships between companies and facilities in the fentanyl supply chain: "We're effectively talking about a digital twin of the global supply chain," Smith said.

  • The CBP graph is a private copy of the Altana Atlas with "billions of transactions, hundreds of millions of unique links and millions of companies," per Smith, based on publicly available data from 450 million companies and proprietary data from CBP.
  • Neither Altana or CBP were willing to comment on specific enforcement operations, but Altana said its Atlas is "being used across the entirety of the global supply chain to track shipments of illicit precursors."

Be smart: Tracking chemicals and the network of shell companies that ship them has become a critical part of breaking up fentanyl supply chains.

  • Having access to AI with multilingual capabilities is another critical advantage as the number of countries in fentanyl supply chains grows.

By the numbers: Since expanding Altana's contract, CBP concluded two successful operations: one that seized 13,000 pounds of fentanyl precursor chemicals, and another that netted 10,000 pounds of fentanyl and 284 arrests.

Context: The Department of Homeland Security uses AI-powered systems from several vendors to suppress the illegal fentanyl trade.

  • Secretary Alexander Mayorkas told Axios in November that the Office of Field Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection is also using AI to detect unusual travel patterns of vehicles crossing the border —identifying 75 kilograms (165 pounds) of narcotics in a single instance recently.

What they're saying: "AI has changed the game. It can make faster analysis than humans could make alone — spotting changes in trade patterns and participating parties," Ana Hinojosa, a former CBP executive director, now president of ABH Consulting, tells Axios.

  • "Traditional drug trafficking strategies have not worked for fentanyl," Hinojosa said. "The players are more organized. The precursor chemicals are not in and of themselves illegal" and many transit countries have corruption problems and limited resources — seeing the trade as a problem for "the stupid Americans who are killing themselves with it," she said.

Editors Note: The story and headline have been corrected to reflect that Customs and Border Protection staff (not agents) are using Altana, to clarify it's CPB (not the Border Patrol) using this Altana tech, and to correct attribution to the company (not the CEO) on jumping at the chance to expand its $9 million contract.

Go deeper