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The border's deadliest threat: opioids

Data: U.S. Customs and Border Protection drug seizures for fiscal years; Note: 2018 figures reflect Oct. 1, 2017 - Aug. 31, 2018. Fentanyl figures for ports of entry reflect Oct. 1, 2017 - July 31, 2018; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

As the nation's opioid crisis rages on, the majority of the two biggest killers — heroin and fentanyl — illegally enter the U.S. from other countries, enmeshing the opioid epidemic with the highly politicized fight over border security.

Between the lines: Building a wall wouldn't do much to stop opioid smuggling through legal ports of entry, but there's a more bipartisan effort under way to improve interdiction capacity at the border.

The big picture: Most heroin seized in the U.S. comes from Mexico, according to a 2018 Drug Enforcement Administration report.

  • While fentanyl exported from China is more pure than Mexican fentanyl, the U.S. seizes higher quantities of Mexican fentanyl. There's also evidence that Mexican traffickers order fentanyl from China and smuggle it into the U.S. themselves.
  • Some opioids – especially fentanyl from China – come into the U.S. through the international mail system, but most drug smuggling attempts occur at and between southwest entry points.

Most opioids are seized at legal ports of entry, suggesting that, at the very least, a border wall alone won't stop drug traffickers supplying the nation's heroin and fentanyl.

  • "It helps, but it’s not a complete answer by any means," Republican Sen. John Cornyn said last month. “People go over walls, under walls, through walls. That’s why really it needs to be technology, infrastructure and personnel" as well.
  • “115% more fentanyl was seized at the border in the points of entry...from ’17 to ’18," said GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, chair of the subcommittee responsible for Department of Homeland Security funding. "So part of border security are the sensors and the technologies to be able to detect."

Democrats also support better anti-drug technology at the border, while opposing a wall.

  • "A wall won’t stop fentanyl but scanning devices and more customs officers will," Democratic Whip Dick Durbin tweeted.

Where it stands: The Senate's Homeland Security spending bill included funding to enhance drug detection technologies, modernize Customs and Border Patrol infrastructure and expand the number of agents dedicated to opioid trafficking enforcement.

Bonus: Marijuana seizures occur more often between ports of entry, and smugglers have come up with very creative ways to get drugs across the border.

  • These include launching marijuana bundles with cannons, moving vehicles over border fences using ramps or cranes, flying drones and digging tunnels, a Homeland Security Investigations official testified in May.