In the next few years broader deployments of scanning technology at land border crossings will enable a significant increase in the amounts of drugs seized inside cars and trucks entering the U.S. from Mexico, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security told a Senate panel on Thursday.

The investments in non-intrusive inspection (NII) technology “are going to be a game changer for us,” Kevin McAleenan told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In fiscal year 2019, Congress provided $564 million to Customs and Border Protection for the purchase of NII equipment over five years. The new inspection technology will allow for screening of more vehicles and cargo because people will not have to exit their vehicles.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. Photo: DHS

CBP is “going to be able to dramatically increase the percentage of vehicles that we scan and it’s going to be the single best tool we have to top the increase from Mexico” of drugs coming through the ports of entry, McAleenan said.

Currently, 85 percent of drug seizures at the border come from X-ray scans of personal vehicles, yet only 2 percent of those cars are being scanned, he said. Of commercial vehicles crossing the border, only 17 percent are scanned, he added.

With the FY ’19 investments in the next few years, scans of cars will get up to 40 percent and for commercial vehicles over 75 percent, so the added technology at the entry ports is “going to completely change our dynamic in terms of risk assessed targeted inspections,” McAleenan said. “That’s going to be a very different target for the smugglers to try to get through.”

McAleenan also said that CBP will be increasing the presence of drug-sniffing dogs at the land ports of entry, pointing out that canine teams drive the second highest rate of referrals for drug seizures.

President Trump last week proposed that 100 percent of all people and goods entering the U.S. be scanned for drugs and contraband (Defense Daily, May 17).

There have been increased shipments of cocaine across the southwest border the past few years and more crystal methamphetamine is also being smuggled across the border as lower costs for drug cartels in Mexico have made it inexpensive for them to increase production there.

McAleenan also highlighted the need for more and replacement physical barriers along portions of the southwest border, saying more hard drugs are being smuggled among ports of entry than five years ago.

The humanitarian crisis on the border is diverting Border Patrol agents and even CBP Officers, who work at the ports of entry, to deal with the surge of illegal migrants being apprehended between the ports and cared for at Border Patrol facilities, McAleenan said. The diversion of CBP resources is opening gaps among the ports of entry that drug smugglers are taking advantage of, he said.

This is a “huge challenge” now, McAleenan said. In April, one Border Patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas stayed in the “brush” for a week because he suspected a particular stretch of border was being used by drug smugglers as agency resources were focused on humanitarian issues elsewhere. The agent’s work led to the seizure of 750-pounds of cocaine, an amount that McAleenan said demonstrated the “confidence” the smugglers now have given the Border Patrol’s preoccupation with the humanitarian challenges of families and unaccompanied children being apprehended.

“We know they’re using families to divert resources and bring drugs behind them and the border wall changes that dynamic,” McAleenan said.

He also said that improved aviation surveillance, particularly sensor technology being requested in the FY ’20 budget, is needed to target illegal activity among ports of entry. In addition, other surveillance technology, including fixed towers, is needed to help Border Patrol agents respond effectively.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) asked how changing tactics of drug cartels shipping cocaine at sea from South America is impacting DHS needs. McAleenan replied that the drugs shipped at sea are taking wider routes through the Pacific before coming arriving in Central America, Mexico, and even central California for smuggling into the U.S.

The Coast Guard is the “best defense” for cocaine shipments and investments in their fleet are “absolutely essential to helping us sustain a presence on the water in the source and transit zones,” McAleenan said. He also praised congressional support for CBP’s P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft and Guardian unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as critical to aiding in open water drug interdictions.

But as smugglers take wider routes through the ocean,  “we need to look at opportunities to innovate in this space because we are seeing incredible efforts by cartels to avoid our current patrol efforts,” McAleenan said, mentioning technologies such as micro-satellites and maritime UAS.

“We also need to look out over the horizon and see what else, what technologies we need to get better at this challenge,” he said.

McAleenan also said that DHS wants to focus more attention on traffic departing the U.S. for Mexico at the land borders. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) pointed out that drug money and guns are flowing from the U.S. to Mexico so the U.S. has “to attack the cartels’ business model” and stop these southbound flows.

More can be done here, McAleenan replied. Some of the NII equipment that will be purchased using the FY ’19 funds will be deployed for southbound inspections. More canine teams are also being acquired for this purpose, he said.

For now, though, the redeployment of some CBP officers for humanitarian duties means there aren’t enough agents for outbound inspections, he said. Once those officers are able to return to the ports of entry, combined with the hiring of additional officers and upcoming purchases of new and more NII equipment, more outbound vehicles will be screened, McAleenan said.