A former top Drug Enforcement Administration official who helped hunt down Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman said President Donald Trump’s border wall wouldn’t do much to stop the flow of deadly substances into the country.
With most major drug loads coming through ports of entry rather than isolated parts of the border, former DEA Deputy Administrator Jack Riley said the government should be focusing on better manpower and screening at official channels.
“It is far too risky and expensive for any of the cartels to move high-volume drugs through those desolate, really unwalled areas,” Riley told HuffPost. “I’m a little confused as to why our guy in the White House really doesn’t understand that. ... On the drug side, we know that nearly 80 percent of all the drugs we’re dealing with ― coke, heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and marijuana ― they come through existing ports of entry.”
Trump, in declaring a national emergency on Friday in an attempt to reroute billions of dollars in taxpayer money to fund his border wall, dismissed the views of drug trafficking experts who say that most drugs coming over the border come through ports of entry.
“A big majority of the big drugs, the big drug loads don’t go through ports of entry,” Trump said at a White House press conference after declaring the emergency. “They can’t go through ports of entry.” He called it a lie that drugs are mostly coming through the ports of entry.
But Riley, who was the target of an assassination plot by El Chapo’s crew, said that “very little” drug trafficking takes place outside ports of entry and that more manpower and technology at those entry points would be much more efficient. Fewer than a third of vehicles coming through ports of entry are thoroughly searched, Riley said, and it was part of El Chapo’s business model to use expressways and ports of entry because those are the “most economical way” to get shipments across the border.
“If you’re El Chapo Guzman and you’re sitting in Sinaloa, you’re thinking ‘Hell, that’s damn near a 70 percent chance. I’m going to get seven of those 10 cars through.’ It’s like they say, you only had to bat .300 to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame,” Riley said.
Slightly more than half the drugs by weight seized by U.S. Border Patrol agents last year were discovered outside legal ports of entry, according to preliminary Customs and Border Protection data for last year. But marijuana, which is legal in several U.S. states, accounted for 95 percent of the haul. As for the more serious drugs that have raised concern amid the opioid epidemic, the vast majority of seized shipments last year — including 90 percent of the heroin and 80 percent of fentanyl — were found at ports of entry.
Riley is out with a new book, Drug Warrior: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo and the Rise of America’s Opioid Crisis, which recounts his career at the DEA from his days as an undercover officer in Chicago to his time as the agency’s No. 2 official. It also focuses on his work catching El Chapo, who was recently convicted on federal charges that will send him to prison for life.
Riley said he fears that Trump’s rhetoric about Mexico is damaging the relationship between U.S. law enforcement officials and their counterparts across the border.
“We would have never been able to capture El Chapo twice without the help of the [Mexican] marines,” Riley said, referring to El Chapo’s initial 2014 capture and recapture after his 2015 escape from a Mexican jail cell. “That was a trust-building situation that took years to do, and unfortunately with one condescending tweet, you can affect the relationships that guys worked so hard to build. I’m fearful that that’s what’s occurring.”
Part of Trump’s plan would pull $2.5 billion from Defense Department counterdrug activities. The plan doesn’t directly affect the DEA’s budget, but Riley said the agency is “resource starved” and operating with far fewer agents than it needs to execute its mission.
Despite the title of his book, Riley said that the opioid crisis has shifted his thinking on the best ways to combat drug problems in the United States and that terms like “war on drugs” are inappropriate, if only because wars typically end.
“I wouldn’t have told you this 20 years ago: We can’t arrest our way out of this. We’ve got to have a balanced approach, with universal treatment available for people who need it and want it,” he said. “I think we’ll be dealing with addiction, cartels and violence for the rest of our existence. It’s just how we choose to attack it.”
Riley said that he has big concerns about the “cozy relationship” between big pharma and members of Congress and that the DEA had to “settle for a civil fine” instead of pursuing criminal cases time and time again.
“A lot of that had to do with the influence of Congress on the Department of Justice,” he said. But fining big pharmaceutical companies a few million dollars was just the “cost of doing business” for them, he said. “To me, that’s like taking a truckload of narco-dollars from El Chapo. It has no effect.”
“What I wish we would do is go after some of the executives criminally, where appropriate, and put them in jail, and that would send a signal throughout the industry that we’re serious,” Riley added. “Millionaire executives in custom suits, they’re not going to do too well playing kickball on the prison yard with some real felons. It will change the industry.”
Additional reporting by Roque Planas.