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DHS, DEA Witnesses Testify on Cartel Fentanyl Smuggling: “They Want to Increase Their Customer Base and Increase Profits”

July 13, 2023

Subcommittee on Border Security and Enforcement demands answers in phase two of Mayorkas investigation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security and Enforcement, led by Chairman Clay Higgins (R-LA), held a hearing with Biden administration witnesses to examine the role of Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), particularly Mexican drug cartels, in trafficking illicit fentanyl into the United States. This hearing marked the beginning of the second phase of the House Committee on Homeland Security’s full-scale oversight investigation into Secretary Mayorkas’ failure to secure our borders. Witness testimony was provided by Kemp Chester, the Senior Advisor to the Director of National Drug Control Policy, Steven Cagen, the Assistant Director of the Countering Transnational Organized Crime Division at Homeland Security Investigations, James Mandryck, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner at the Office of Intelligence, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), George Papadopoulos, the Principal Deputy Administrator at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Tyrone Durham, the Director of the Nation State Threats Center at the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. 
In the hearing, witnesses confirmed that TCOs in Mexico are successfully smuggling mass quantities of deadly illicit fentanyl past Border Patrol agents and CBP Officers and into the United States. Not only are cartels smuggling on land, but they are now trafficking fentanyl and other drugs using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones. Amid this administration’s historic border crisis and Secretary Mayorkas’ dereliction of duty, cartels have been able to reap billions of dollars in profits to increase their capabilitiesleaving our nation’s dedicated Border Patrol agents at a disadvantage in the field.

WATCH: Higgins Questions Witnesses on Fentanyl Smuggled into the U.S. by Cartels

In his second line of questioning, Subcommittee Chairman Higgins shared his experience as a law enforcement officer and received confirmation from a witness that federal law enforcement is only able to seize about a quarter of the deadly fentanyl trafficked into communities across America by cartels in Mexico:

“As we consider the volume seized, which is an unprecedented amount, you guys are pretty much seizing everything you have operational capability to seize. And it’s an incredible job that you’re doing. […] The volume that you have right now, there’s so much out there—a drug dealer told me last year, he said, ‘We have so much fentanyl, we’re giving it away.’ It’s why people are dying. They want their product to be more popular on the streets, making it heavier. […] He said that they abandon volumes of fentanyl if they are going to cross state lines, if they’re moving operation to another state, because it’s so much cheaper to replace the fentanyl than it is to risk interstate trafficking. So you’re seizing unbelievable volumes of fentanyl, but how does that volume compare with what, in your estimation, would be the total you’re seizing, 25%, 50%, 15%?”

Mr. Mandryck answered:

“The challenge with something like fentanyl is it being synthetic—there’s no agriculture-based place to get an initial estimate. So unlike cocaine or marijuana, where we can kind of do an oversight to see general cultivation estimates, we can’t do that with synthetics like fentanyl or methamphetamine. When we look at it holistically from an intelligence perspective, it’s probably within that 25% mark based off demand.”

WATCH: Rep. Gonzales Highlights Dangers of Drones Piloted by Mexican Cartels at the Southwest Border

Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) questioned witnesses on the evolving threats from drones piloted by Mexican cartels on the Southwest border:

“Cartels are using drones to penetrate the United States airspace, and they’re dropping off packages of fentanyl. Remember, you don’t need large quantities in order to make a lot of money off of this, and they’re taking that and they’re moving it around. Well, let me just set the tone. Imagine if you’re in a soccer field, and all of a sudden, there’s a drone that flies over with fentanyl and it doesn’t drop it to get picked up and sold somewhere, it just drops it in the stadium. Could we live in that world? Well, guess what? We already live in that world. […] Mr. Mandryck, can you speak to any trends or observations you’ve seen with the recent rise in the use of drones to smuggle drugs across the border?”

Mr. Mandryck answered:

“Historically, we had seen drones almost entirely used for surveillance along the border, whether that’s at a port of entry or between ports of entry, where scouts located on the Mexican side would monitor the movements and then facilitate cross border movement from there. We have started to see an increased number of sUAS incursions crossing the border, some of which are for surveillance purposes but we have some increased use smuggling of some narcotics, primarily hard narcotics, those that, as you mentioned, don’t require larger quantities for movement. We have in place a very strong counter-UAS program with our U.S. Border Patrol and our Air and Marine Operations Center that we would love to give you a more in-depth briefing on the specific capabilities of.”

Rep. Gonzales continued, highlighting the struggle of law enforcement on the ground to address the threat of drones in the trafficking of illicit narcotics across the border:

“I was just in El Paso a few weeks ago and I visited two areas. One, I visited the Clint Border Patrol Station. This is an area in the El Paso Sector, but it’s not the main one. It’s not what you see on TV. It’s one of the sectors that is in the lower valley, and it is historically known that this is the area that is most trafficked in drugs. And so, I was asking the agent sales like how many agents do you have on duty at one time? The answer was two agents. Okay, my next question was, how much contraband have you apprehended this year? Guess what the answer was? Zero. Okay, so the most trafficked area in El Paso County, you only have two agents on duty, and they’ve apprehended nothing. […] Outside the city limits of El Paso is a brand new soft-sided facility. It’s like going to the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, it’s like Disneyland. [It’s] 360,000 square feet, larger than six football fields. It’s costing taxpayers $400 million a year. Guess how many agents were in that facility? 208. What I’m getting at is, we’re putting all our resources into the humanitarian piece of it, and there’s nobody on the field to actually stop some of the traffic that’s happening. One of the agents told me, ‘Hey, look, I see drones coming back and forth all the time, and I feel powerless. There is nothing I can do as a field agent down on the ground.’ […] Once again, we’re living in a different environment where things are tactical, you’ve got to be able to give the agent the tools that they need to succeed in a real-time environment if we’re going to save lives. […] What can the Committee do to ensure that CBP and other appropriate agencies have what they need to combat drones that are illegally crossing our border?”

Mr. Mandryck answered:

“What a lot of it comes down to is just the adaptability we are with the technology. The speed at which that grows. They’re very cheap to collect [and] to produce. So, it’s kind of a two-fold effort. So, it’s actually attacking logistical supply chains behind those to prevent those being moved into the hands of TCO’s to use for facilitation, but also supporting the technology to not just detect, but also safely bring down those pieces of aircraft. And then the exploitation after that—a significant investment from a technology and an expertise standpoint.”

WATCH: Witness Confirms for Rep. Brecheen that Cartels Know Exactly how Deadly Fentanyl is 

Rep. Josh Brecheen (R-OK) questioned witnesses on the criminal intent of Mexican cartels, who have taken a record number of American lives with fentanyl in the past two years:
“Just in Oklahoma alone, the state that I’m a representative for, we’ve seen a 735% increase in fentanyl deaths, and that has occurred from 2018 to 2022. 326 deaths in 2022. In Oklahoma, in 2018, it was 39. And I think probably every Member of this Committee has some personal point of contact with somebody that they know of who has lost their life. […] If six out of the 10 pills that you all are looking at, [in] one of your testimonies a minute ago, are containing lethal overdose elements to the point that if you take it unsuspectingly, it can kill you. Why are they doing that?
Mr. Chester answered: 
“Our image of these drug producers and traffickers, I think, traditionally has been that there are evil doers who are out to hurt people, when in reality, they are disinterested business people who really only want a few things. They want to lower their production costs. They want to lower their risk of detection and interdiction. They want to increase their customer base and increase their profits. And in a mechanism to do that is to provide the drug user an experience that they did not expect. This is what we saw back in 2015, when we started to see synthetic opioids like fentanyl introduced into the heroin supply chain, and this was the door that opened this up for the United States. What it did is it provided the individual a qualitative effect that they did not expect, and it was used as kind of a branding. Because these things are so potent, because they are so potentially lethal. A milligram in the wrong direction will take you from having a qualitative experience that you didn’t expect, to an overdose.”
Rep. Brecheen continued: 

“Are you seeing it utilized as a revenge element? You’re saying that there’s nothing that is in this [other] than profit margin, but there is an evil intent that can lead to murder purposefully. In your investigations, are you seeing that?”
Mr. Papadopoulos answered:
“The answer is yes. We have evidence in some of the previous cases I mentioned, where the cartels knew that there was deadly fentanyl, that the amount of fentanyl that they were sending to us was deadly because they tested it on human beings in Mexico—and they still sent it anyway. As Mr. Chester was saying, these are not mixed in labs. They’re not sterile. We’ve seen pills with less than a milligram of fentanyl, all the way up to eight milligrams of fentanyl. The average dose is 2.4 milligrams, and two milligrams is considered a potentially deadly dose.”