Thursday, January 31, 2019

Stepping Closer to a War in the Middle East

Recent testimony on Capitol Hill by Daniel R. Coats, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) looked at the intelligence community's assessment of threats to the America's national security.  One of the focuses of this year's Worldwide Threat Assessment is Iran; in this posting, I want to pick out a few salient points that may help us gain a better understanding of what lies ahead in the Middle East as the war in Syria appears to be winding down, particularly given the recent attacks by Israel's Air Force against alleged Iranian military sites in Syria.  

In the 2019 edition of the Worldwide Threat Assessment, Iran is mentioned 72 times behind the 85 for China and 81 for Russia.  This compares to 32 for Syria, 27 for North Korea, 7 for Libya, 6 for Cuba and only 4 for Venezuela.  Let's focus on the threats from Iran with particular emphasis on the relationship between Iran, Syria and Israel:

A.) Cyberthreats:

"Iran continues to present a cyber espionage and attack threat. Iran uses increasingly sophisticated cyber techniques to conduct espionage; it is also attempting to deploy cyber attack capabilities that would enable attacks against critical infrastructure in the United States and allied countries. Tehran also uses social media platforms to target US and allied audiences, an issue discussed in the Online Influence Operations and Election Interference section of this report. 

1.) Iranian cyber actors are targeting US Government officials, government organizations, and companies to gain intelligence and position themselves for future cyber operations. 

2.) Iran has been preparing for cyber attacks against the United States and our allies. It is capable of causing localized, temporary disruptive effects—such as disrupting a large company’s corporate networks for days to weeks—similar to its data deletion attacks against dozens of Saudi governmental and private-sector networks in late 2016 and early 2017." 

B.) Weapons of Mass Destruction Development:

"We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device. However, Iranian officials have publicly threatened to reverse some of Iran’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commitments—and resume nuclear activities that the JCPOA limits—if Iran does not gain the tangible trade and investment benefits it expected from the deal.

1.) In June 2018, Iranian officials started preparations, allowable under the JCPOA, to expand their capability to manufacture advanced centrifuges.

2.) Also in June 2018, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced its intent to resume producing natural uranium hexafluoride (UF6) and prepare the necessary infrastructure to expand its enrichment capacity within the limits of the JCPOA.

3.) Iran continues to work with other JCPOA participants—China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—to find ways to salvage economic benefits from it. Iran’s continued implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year.

Iran’s ballistic missile programs, which include the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the region, continue to pose a threat to countries across the Middle East. Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle (SLV)—including on its Simorgh—shortens the timeline to an ICBM because SLVs and ICBMs use similar technologies."

What the Threat Assessment fails to mention is that it would be highly unusual that Iran would use a space launch vehicle for an ICBM since it has a significant satellite program and wishes to become the “go-to” satellite launching nation for the Middle East.

The United States is also concerned that Iran is in non-compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and that it may not have declared all of its chemical weapons capabilities.  That said, the authors of the report neglect to mention this:


C.) Regional Threats:  

This part of the report looks at the potential challengers to American hegemony and include Russia, China, North Korea and, of course, Iran.  Here's what the report has to say about the status of Iran's threats to American interests:

"Iran’s regional ambitions and improved military capabilities almost certainly will threaten US interests in the coming year, driven by Tehran’s perception of increasing US, Saudi, and Israeli hostility, as well as continuing border insecurity, and the influence of hardliners.

We assess that Iran will attempt to translate battlefield gains in Iraq and Syria into long-term political, security, social, and economic influence while continuing to press Saudi Arabia and the UAE by supporting the Huthis in Yemen.

In Iraq, Iran-supported Popular Mobilization Committee-affiliated Shia militias remain the primary threat to US personnel, and we expect that threat to increase as the threat ISIS poses to the militias recedes, Iraqi Government formation concludes, some Iran-backed groups call for the United States to withdraw, and tension between Iran and the United States grows. We continue to watch for signs that the regime might direct its proxies and partners in Iraq to attack US interests.

Iran’s efforts to consolidate its influence in Syria and arm Hizballah have prompted Israeli airstrikes as recently as January 2019 against Iranian positions within Syria and underscore our growing concern about the long-term trajectory of Iranian influence in the region and the risk that conflict will escalate.

Iran continues to pursue permanent military bases and economic deals in Syria and probably wants to maintain a network of Shia foreign fighters there despite Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria.  We assess that Iran seeks to avoid a major armed conflict with Israel.However, Israeli strikes that result in Iranian casualties increase the likelihood of Iranian conventional retaliation against Israel, judging from Syrian-based Iranian forces’ firing of rockets into the Golan Heights in May 2018 following an Israeli attack the previous month on Iranians at Tiyas Airbase in Syria."  (my bolds)

Let's look at a little-reported statement from a Brigadier General Hossein Salami of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps from January 28, 2019 in reposes to Israel's repeated attacks against so-called Iranian installations in Syria:

"We announce that if Israel takes any step to start a new war, without a doubt, this war would be the same war, which would end in its elimination and the occupied territories will be retaken.  Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility."

...and, from this report from Iran's Tasnim News Agency, it looks like Iran will not be leaving Syria anytime soon:


...and, lastly, this interview with Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the Lebanon's Hezbollah in which he warns Israel to be very careful in using its military to remove Iran from Syria and that Benjamin Netanyahu's bet on the fall of Bashar al Assad and Syria as a whole has been an abject failure:


Note this quote:

"At any moment a decision could be taken to deal differently with Israeli attacks on Syria."

You will also note that Nasrallah makes the rather interesting observation that Netanyahu has attacked Syria as a strategy to help him win the upcoming Israeli election.

While the U.S. intelligence community has many fears about Iran's growing influence in the Middle East and how it threatens American hegemony, one of Washington's bigger concerns should be Israel since Benjamin Netanyahu's pathological hatred for all things Iranian and the growing likelihood that he could find himself removed from office in the April 2019 election has created a man that is desperate for a "win" in Syria, a "win" that could well create the next Middle East war.  The American intelligence community's concerns about Iran's cyberthreats and its mothballed nuclear weapons program pale in comparison to the growing odds of an Israeli-created war in the region. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

John Bolton, Venezuela and How Washington is Doomed to Repeat History

In a recent interview on Fox Business, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton clearly expressed why Washington is so interested in Venezuela:


This is a subject that I touched on in this recent posting.

When asked about whether the Venezuelan military is backing Maduro, John Bolton had this to say (4 minute mark):

"I don't think Maduro has the military.  He has statements by his Minister of Defense who owes his job to Maduro.  I think the average service member is very much on the side of Juan Guaido, the interim president.  I think the military is still up in the air, I think the fact they have stayed in their barracks these last 30 hours now shows that they're not necessarily...that Maduro can't count on them to follow orders.  So there are extensive discussions going on by members of the National Assembly with the military still very much in play and its one reason why today, here in Washington, we've been looking at ways to disconnect Maduro from the financial resources he needs to pay the military and otherwise keep himself in power.  That could be a very effective way, we think, of helping the legitimate government."

Here's what he had to say about the ongoing sanctions being imposed by the Trump Administration (5 minute 15 second):

"We're looking at the oil assets, that's the single most important income stream that the government of Venezuela.  We're looking at what to do to that.  We want everybody to know that we're looking at all of this seriously.  We don't want any American businesses or investors caught by surprise."

When asked about Citgo, one of America's largest gasoline retailers that is owned by state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (aka PdVSA) this is what Mr. Bolton had to say (5 minute 50 second mark):

"We're in conversation with major American companies now that are either in Venezuela or in the case of Citgo, here in the United States.  I think we're trying to get to the same end result here.  Venezuela is one of the three countries I called the Troika of Tyranny.  It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.  Be good for the people of Venezuela, be good for the people of the United States. We both have a lot at stake here making this come out the right way."

I like that, the "right way" and how this American-driven upheaval will be "good for the people of Venezuela .  Apparently, Mr. Bolton is not a student of history as you will see in this posting.

While you likely aren't aware, a relatively similar situation occurred in Chile in 1973.  Democratically elected, left-leaning President Salvador Allende was overthrown by his own armed forces and national police following the passing of a constitutional amendment which allowed Allende to nationalize American interests in Chile's massive copper industry.  Here is a quote from the New York Times on February 11, 1971:

"The copper nationalization, a major aspect of Dr. Allende's socialist program, contains the potential for serious conflict with United States financial interests and the United States Government if the takeover is considered confiscatory by the companies.

The copper investments amount to nearly $700million, and include large sums spent on the expansion of Chile's mines under the previous government of President Eduardo Frei Montalva, a Christian Democrat.

Mr. Frei promoted these investments through mixed United StatesChilean companies in which the Chilean Government held a majority interest in most cases. The United States Government guaranteed the investments against expropriation through an insurance plan that provides a potential of about $350million in coverage.

The nationalization that Dr. Allende wants will eliminate the 49 per cent interest of Kennecott and Anaconda in the big mines of El Teniente, Chuquicamata and El Salvador as well as. Anaconda's 75 per cent interest in the Exotica mine and Cerro's 70 per cent ownership of the Andina mine. These mines produce 90 per cent of Chile's copper exports yield sales approximating $750millions.

Kennecott has been operating in copper here since 1908 and Anaconda since 1922. Cerro, newcomer, has just invested $130million in the Andina mine and made its first copper shipment this week.

The constitutional reform and the legislation to carry it out provide that the value of each company for purposes of compensation is the book value, or net worth after deducting liabilities from assets on Dec. 31, 1970, minus a series of reductions." (my bold)

President Allende died during the military actions that took place on September 11, 1973 which saw him replaced by the U.S.-backed Augusto Pinochet who dissolved the nation's democratically elected government.  In the first months after the coup, the Chilean military killed thousands of Chilean leftists (perceived or real) and imprisoned 40,000 political enemies in the National Stadium of Chile.   The U.S.-backed Pinochet remained in power for nearly two decades and resulted in the deaths and disappearances of hundreds (if not thousands) of Chileans as shown on these graphics from a 2017 study of the Chilean coup by John Meadowcroft et al:



In addition, it is likely that at least 80,000 people in total were incarcerated and tens of thousands were tortured by the U.S.-backed regime.
  
The Church Committee, established in 1975 by the U.S. Senate to study U.S. government operations as related to the American intelligence network found the following relationship between the CIA and the coup in Chile:



Note this sentence:

"The pattern of United States covert action in Chile is striking by not unique.  It arose in the context not only of American foreign policy, but also of covert U.S. involvement in other countries within and outside Latin America.  The scale of CIA involvement in Chile was unusual but by no means unprecedented."

Apparently, John Bolton needs to read the Church Committee report.

Augusto Pinochet remained in office until 1990 when he stepped down after a 1988 plebiscite saw 56 percent of the population vote against him remaining in office.  He continued to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army until March 10, 1998 when he became a Senator-for-Life.  On October 10, 1998, he was arrested in London in connection with human rights violations and tax evasion and embezzlement during his time in office.  In October 2006, he was held on charges of torturing and kidnapping of his fellow Chileans with the Chilean government-appointed National Commission of Political Imprisonment and Torture reporting that more than 18,000 people were tortured during the four months after the September 1973 coup and 5,266 people being tortured over the period from January 1974 to August 1977.  He died on December 10, 2006.

Let's summarize with this quote from the United Nations Charter Article 2:


"The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.

1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.

2. All Members, in order to ensure to all of them the rights and benefits resulting from membership, shall fulfil in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the present Charter.

3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.


5. All Members shall give the United Nations every assistance in any action it takes in accordance with the present Charter, and shall refrain from giving assistance to any state against which the United Nations is taking preventive or enforcement action."

But, then again, the Trump Administration has made it quite clear that it doesn't necessarily believe in the United Nations as the President of the United States showed in this speech to the U.N. in September 2018:

"When nations respect each other, they can work together for prosperity and peace. Each of us here is an emissary of the own culture, history, values that make our homeland like nowhere else on earth.

America chooses independence and cooperation over global government, each must pursue its own customs. The U.S. won’t tell you how to live, work, or worship. We ask you to honor our sovereignty in return."

While it's just a guess on my part but I suspect that there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who can see the irony in these comments.

It is fascinating to see that the United States appears poised to repeat the mistakes that it made in 1970s Chile by replacing a democratically (albeit flawed) elected leader with their hand-chosen replacement.  John Bolton's comments that the Venezuelan people will benefit from the American take-over of Venezuela's massive oil reserves rings hollow, in fact, the only people that will really benefit are the corner office dwellers in the American oil industry. Unless Mr. Bolton can guarantee that the Gauido government will not repeat the tragedy that was inflicted on Chileans by the American-backed Pinochet regime, Venezuelans will be the biggest losers in a new government that has been imposed on them by outside powers...all in the name of profiteering for Corporate America.

Given America's "success" at nation rebuilding in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and other nations throughout post-Second World War history, one has to believe that the following quote is pertinent to the current situation in Venezuela:

"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Why Washington Cares About Venezuela

Venezuela has repeatedly hit the front page news over the past few months, first with the re-election of Maduro as president and most recently with the sabre-rattling from the United States who wants to replace the elected president with a hand-picked successor.  In general, the world, particularly the United States, pays relatively little attention to election results in developing economies, however, there is one main reason why Washington cares about what happens in Venezuela; oil.

Venezuela has been an oil producing nation since 1914 when commercial oil was discovered on the Easter shores of Lake Maracaibo.  Venezuela is a charter member of OPEC, joining/founding the group as a founding member in September 1960 along with Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.  In the decades that followed, Venezuela became a world leader when its oil sector is measured in terms of proven reserves as shown on this graphic:


In total, Venezuela's proven oil reserves of 302.81 billion barrels represents nearly one-quarter of OPEC's total reserves, surpassing the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia by just under 40 billion barrels.  

Here is a map showing Venezuela's oil infrastructure:


Venezuela's oil is found in two main belts; the Orinoco belt and in the region around Lake Maracaibo located in the west of the nation.  Most of Venezuela's conventional crude oil is heavy and sour and requires specialized refining.   Here is a table showing Venezuela's oil crude grades:


In January 1976, Venezuela nationalized its oil industry under the economic plan "La Gran Venezuela".  It was at this time that the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA) was launched as a replacement for all foreign owned oil companies that were doing business in Venezuela.  In the early 1990s, Venezuela re-opened parts of its oil industry to foreign investors in an attempt to gain technical knowledge to help increase their flagging oil production.  In 2002, conflicts between the state-owned oil company and its employees led to a massive strike which ultimately led to the laying off of thousands of highly experienced oil sector workers.  As a result, crude oil production never recovered to its pre-2002 levels.  In 2006, then President Chavez implemented a nationalization of oil exploration and production, requiring that joint ventures with PdVSA provide a 60 percent minimum share for PdVSA.  Here is a table showing PdVSA's crude oil loading terminals and their participating companies:


While Venezuela's oil reserves are massive, the same cannot be said for its crude oil production as shown on this graphic:


As of May 2018, Venezuela's daily oil production fell to a 30 year low of 1.4 million BOPD, however, even at that level, Venezuela is still the 12th largest oil producing nation in the world.  

One of the problems facing Venezuela's oil industry is a lack of capital investment by the state-owned petroleum company Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA) which has led to decreased capital investments by its foreign partners.  As show on this graphic, this has led to a drop in the number of active oil rigs which has dropped from around 70 in Q1 2016 to 25 in Q3 2018:


As I noted above, Venezuela's production of oil has dropped substantially over the past decades.  This has had an impact on its crude exports to the United States, India and China (among other nations) as shown here:


At 1.1 million BOPD in Q1 2018, Venezuela's oil exports are 33 percent below their level in 2016.

As one of Venezuela's largest oil consumers, the United States also saw the volume of its crude imports from Venezuela drop from 840,000 BOPD in December 2015 to 506,000 BOPD in October 2018 as shown here:


In fact, if we look further back in time, U.S. imports of Venezuelan crude were as high as 1.1 million BOPD in 2007, putting the nation in third place after Canada and Saudi Arabia when measured in terms of oil supplied.

With massive oil reserves of over 300 billion barrels and Venezuela's close geographic proximity to the massive American market (particularly when compared to the Middle East), it is no wonder that Washington has such a keen interest in what happens in Venezuela, particularly given that it  could prove to be America's key supplier of oil in the future.  While the United States is currently experiencing an oil production windfall, the high decline rates of non-conventional oil production (i.e. fracking/horizontal drilling) will ultimately result in a very significant need for additional imports of oil.  Venezuela is the most likely candidate to fulfill America's never-ending need for oil.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Growth in Global Inequality

The recent report "Public Good or Private Wealth" by Oxfam provides us with an up-to-date examination of the growing global wealth gap between the wealthiest and poorest among us and how this inequality can be reduced to benefit the hundreds of millions of ordinary people who need access to better education and health care.  Here is a summary of the findings of the report.

A.) The wealthiest among us:

1.) in the decade since the Great Recession, the number of billionaires in the world has nearly doubled to 2,208 in total.  Between 2017 and 2018, a new billionaire was created every two days.

2.) in the last year alone, the total wealth of the world's billionaires has increased by $900 billion or an average of $2.5 billion daily.

3.) in 2018, 26 people owned the same wealth as the world's poorest 3.8 billion people, down from 43 people in 2017.

4.) the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, saw his fortune increase to $112 billion.  Just 1 percent of his fortune is equivalent to the entire health care budget for Ethiopia, a nation of 105 million people.

5.) between 1980 and 2016, the richest 1 percent captured 27 cents of every dollar in global income growth.

6.) in the United States, White males own 100 times more wealth than single Hispanic women.  Globally, men own 50 percent more of the total wealth than women.

7.) the super wealthy are hiding at least $7.6 trillion from national tax authorities, avoiding an estimated $200 billion in annual tax revenues.

B.) The poorest among us:

1.) 3.4 billion people subsist on less than $5.50 per day

2.) a child from a poor family in a developing nation is three times more likely to die before the age of five than a child from a rich family.

3.) the rate of global poverty reduction has halved since 2013.

4.) if the unpaid care work done by women across the globe was carried out by a single company, it would have an annual cash turnover rate of $10 trillion.

5.) almost 10,000 people die in low and middle income nations every day because they cannot access healthcare.  Here is a graphic showing the percentage of births with assistance of a midwife or skilled medical professional for the poorest and richest 20 percent of the population of four nations:


6.) 262 million children will not attend school on a daily basis.

7.) women from the lowest castes of Indian society can expect to live 15 years less than their upper caste counterparts.  Life expectancy in the poorest parts of London is six years shorter than in wealthier neighbourhoods located nearby.

8.) Social mobility between generations has slowed in recent years, largely because the quality of education differs greatly between social classes.  A girl from a poor family in Kenya has a one in 250 chance of continuing her education beyond secondary school.  By comparison, a boy from a rich family has a one in three chance of continuing his education beyond the secondary school level.

Now, let's look at what the rich enjoy.  Here is a graphic showing how the top personal income tax rates, corporate income tax rate and top inheritance tax rates have dropped for 20 rich nations over the past five decades:


In the world's wealthiest nations, the average top rate of personal income tax fell from 62 percent in 1970 to 38 percent in 2013.  In nations like the United Kingdom and Brazil, the poorest 10 percent of the population is paying a higher proportion of their incomes in tax than the wealthiest 10 percent.  When it comes to global tax revenues, only 4 cents in every dollar of tax revenue comes from taxes on wealth.  If the wealthiest people in the world paid just 0.5 percent extra in taxes, the funds raised could provide healthcare that would save 3.3 million lives and educate 262 million children who do not attend school.

The growing gap between the world's rich and poor is dividing the globe as shown in this quote from the paper:

"Respected voices have warned that across the world, from the US to Brazil, from Europe to the Philippines, inequality is contributing to a poisoning of our politics. In recent years, we have seen crackdowns on freedom of speech and democracy by governments worldwide.  The Council on Foreign Relations has highlighted the evidence that the gap between rich and poor is helping to fuel authoritarianism.  Rather than working to heal the divide between rich and poor, some leaders are instead seeking to vilify immigrants, other ethnic groups, other nations, women and people in poverty. In more unequal countries, trust is lower and crime higher. Unequal societies are more stressed, less happy and have higher levels of mental illness….

Economically unequal countries are countries where women and men are more unequal too. Societies in which the gap between rich and poor is much lower are those in which women are treated more as equals.  Gender inequality is neither an accident nor something new. Our economic rules have been written by rich and powerful men in their own interests. The neo-liberal economic model of today has made this worse – cuts to public services, cuts to taxes for the richest individuals and corporations, and a race to the bottom on wages have all hurt women more than men."

The world is providing us with abundant evidence of the social breakdown that occurs when economic prosperity is not shared.  Public movements across Europe, the United States and other regions of the world dramatically show what happens when the elite drive the economic agenda to achieve their own goals which most certainly do not include universal education and healthcare.  While tax policies have the potential to reduce inequality, it is a rare politician that acts in a manner that benefits the poorest among us. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Transporting Drugs Across the Southwest Border - Why A Border Wall Won't Work

With the southern border of the United States gaining a very significant portion of news coverage especially when it comes to Donald Trump's proclamations that the border region is a source of crime in the United States, a brief look at the 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment from the Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Agency gives us interesting insight into how a border wall could impact the flow of drugs across the Mexico - United States frontier.

According to the 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), Mexico is a key source of the following illicit drugs:

1.) Heroin - Mexico is the primary source of heroin - significant increases in opium polly cultivation and heroin production allow Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) to supply high-purity, low-cost heroin into the U.S. market as U.S. demand has increased.

2.) Fentanyl and Synthetic Opioids - Mexico and China are the primary sources of the most lethal category of opioids used in the United States.  Fentanyl sourced from Mexico is generally lower in purity resulting in large seizures of  but larger in quantity than 

3.) Methamphetamine - most of America's methamphetamines are produced in Mexico and smuggled across the Southwest Border (SWB).

4.) Marijuana - Mexico is the most significant foreign source of marijuana with the volume of seized marijuana decreasing across the SWB.  Mexican drug traffickers are selling Mexico-sourced marijuana for use in THC extraction laboratories located in Southern California.

Overall, the Mexican TCOs remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States with the Sinaloa Cartel maintaining the largest footprint in the United States.  As well, in recent years, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion's (based in Guadalajara) footprint in the United States has expanded substantially.

The report notes that Mexican TCO activity has the following structure and characteristics:

"Mexican TCO activity in the United States is mainly overseen by Mexican nationals or U.S. citizens of Mexican origin. U.S.-based TCO members of Mexican nationality enter the United States legally and illegally and often seek to conceal themselves within densely- populated Mexican-American communities. Mexican TCO members operating in the United States often share familial ties with, or can be traced back to, the natal region of leading cartel figures in Mexico. U.S.-based TCO members may reside in the United States prior to being employed by a Mexican TCO. In some cases, U.S.-based TCO members are given high-ranking positions within the organization upon returning to Mexico after years of successful activity in the United States."

They live among us!

According to the DEA, drugs are transported across the Southwest Border using the following methods:

"Mexican TCOs transport the majority of illicit drugs into the United States across the SWB using a wide array of smuggling techniques. The most common method employed by these TCOs involves transporting illicit drugs through U.S. POEs (official Points of Entry) in passenger vehicles with concealed compartments or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor trailers. In some instances, regardless of method, the size of the loads has decreased, while the number of them has increased.

Other cross-border smuggling techniques employed by Mexican TCOs include the use of subterranean tunnels, which originate in Mexico and lead into safe-houses on the U.S. side of the border. Underground tunnels are mainly used to smuggle ton quantities of marijuana, though there are instances of other illicit drugs commingled in shipments. Tunnels seized and destroyed by U.S. law enforcement authorities along the SWB are primarily found in California and Arizona, and are generally associated with the Sinaloa Cartel.

Mexican TCOs also transport illicit drugs to the United States aboard commercial cargo trains and passenger buses. To a lesser extent, Mexican TCOs use maritime vessels off the coast of California. Mexican TCOs also rely on traditional drug smuggling methods, such as the use of backpackers, or “mules,” on clandestine land trails to cross remote areas of the SWB into the United States.

Mexican TCOs exploit various aerial methods to transport illicit drugs across the SWB. These methods include the use of ultralight aircraft and unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and drones to conduct air drops. Ultralights are primarily used to transport marijuana shipments, depositing the drugs in close proximity to the SWB. Currently, UASs can only convey small multi-kilogram amounts of illicit drugs at a time and are therefore not commonly used, though there is potential for increased growth and use. Mexican TCOs also use UASs to monitor the activity of U.S. law enforcement along the SWB to identify cross-border vulnerabilities."

Let's take a more detailed look at the importation of heroin, one of the major imported drug classes, examining the DEA's views on how these drugs are transported from Mexico (and beyond) into the United States:

"In 2017, heroin from Mexico accounted for 91 percent (by weight) of the heroin analyzed through the DEA’s HSP.  The annual United States Government estimate of Mexican Poppy Cultivation and Heroin Production found poppy cultivation reached a record high in 2017. Poppy cultivation in Mexico rose 38 percent, from 32,000 hectares in 2016 to 44,100 hectares in 2017. Similarly, potential pure heroin production increased by 37 percent, from 81 metric tons in 2016 to 111 metric tons in 2017.

The SWB remains the primary entry point for heroin into the United States. Most of the heroin seized by Custom Border and Protection (CBP) occurs along the U.S.- Mexico border near San Diego, California.  In 2017, approximately 1,073 kilograms of heroin were seized in the San Diego corridor, a 59 percent increase over the total seized in 2016.  A small percentage of all heroin seized by CBP along the land border was between Ports of Entry (POEs). The CBP San Diego sector reported the greatest amount of heroin seized of all non- POE land border seizures, followed by the Tucson sector."

Here is a map which shows heroin seizures for each toe the Southwest Border regions for 2017:


"Mexican TCOs control the movement of heroin that enters the United States across the SWB, until it reaches its destination in cities all over the United States. The majority of the flow is through POVs entering the United States at legal ports of entry, followed by tractor-trailers, where the heroin is co-mingled with legal goods . Body carriers represent a smaller percentage of heroin movement across the SWB and they typically smuggle amounts ranging from three to six pounds taped to their torso, or in shoes and backpacks."

Here are some photographs from the report showing heroin concealed in privately owned vehicles:


"The majority of the cocaine and heroin produced and exported by Colombian TCOs to the United States is transported through Central America and Mexico. Colombian TCOs export large cocaine shipments to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, using a variety of maritime and aerial means to include speedboats, fishing vessels, private aircraft, semi-submersibles, and commercial air and sea cargo."

Let's close this posting with an examination of the importation of fentanyl from Mexico.  As quoted here, Mexican fentanyl is of much lower quality than fentanyl imported from China:

"While seizures likely originating in Mexico represent the largest total gross weight of fentanyl seized in the United States, the overall low purity of this fentanyl means a relatively small portion of a given fentanyl seizure is actually fentanyl. Fentanyl sourced from China arrives in significantly smaller quantities than fentanyl sourced from Mexico, but due to its exceptionally high purity, it both poses a greater risk to the purchaser/user and can be adulterated many more times. DEA reporting also indicates Mexican traffickers order fentanyl from China, adulterate it, and smuggle it into the United States themselves, meaning an unknown amount of seized Mexican parcels containing fentanyl are ultimately of Chinese origin. In addition, Mexican traffickers’ primary source of supply for fentanyl precursor chemicals is also China."

Here is an explanation on the transporting of fentanyl across the Southwest Border:

"Fentanyl trafficked by Mexican TCOs is typically in multi-kilogram quantities and is combined with adulterants in clandestine facilities in Mexico prior to it moving into the SWB region. Mexican TCOs most commonly smuggle the multi-kilogram loads of fentanyl concealed in privately owned vehicles (POVs) before trafficking the drugs through SWB POEs. According to CBP and DEA reporting, although fentanyl is often seized as a part of poly drug loads (generally cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine), fentanyl mixtures with other illicit drugs are very uncommon at the wholesale level."

Here is a quote on the amount of fentanyl seized in 2017:

"Fentanyl seizures at SWB POEs increased by 135 percent— from 223 kilograms to 524 kilograms— between CY 2016 and CY 2017. The CBP San Diego Field Office AOR remains the primary entry region for fentanyl entering the United States via the SWB (see Figure 41). Approximately 85 percent of the fentanyl seized— 447 kilograms of 524 kilograms— entering the United States via the SWB flowed through the San Diego POE in CY 2017. During this timeframe, personally operated vehicles were the conveyance for 74 percent of the fentanyl seized, by weight, at SWB POEs. The second largest volume of flow— 14 percent of all the fentanyl seized along the SWB— was seized in the CBP Tucson Field Office AOR in CY 2017. In comparison, during CY 2016, the CBP San Diego Field Office AOR accounted for 91 percent of all the fentanyl seized along the SWB and the CBP Tucson Field Office AOR accounted for nine percent."

Here is a map which shows fentanyl seizures for each toe the Southwest Border regions for 2017:


While I realize that the volume of drugs seized at the Southwest Border is likely a small fraction of the total drugs that cross the Mexico - United States border, it is interesting to see that the vast majority of both heroin and fentanyl is seized at official points of entry from either transport trucks or personal vehicles with only small volumes of these drugs being seized from individuals crossing the border illegally at points between official border crossings.  This would seem to indicate that the building of a continuous border wall will have relatively minimal impact on the volume of drugs imported into the United States from Mexico.  While a wall will make it more difficult for individual drug mules to smuggle relatively small volumes of illicit drugs into the United States, a wall is not going to stop people from importing illicit drugs using transport trucks, buses, personal vehicles and the myriad of other methods that involve crossing the border at official crossing points.