Can a wall stop drugs? Spot the heroin in this picture.

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
Vehicles stand in early morning traffic at the San Ysidro Port of Entry for the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

One of President Trump’s go-to arguments for building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico is that it will cut down on illegal drug traffic. “I talk about human traffickers, I talk about drugs, I talk about gangs,” Trump said at his White House press conference Friday afternoon, defending his insistence on including $5.6 billion for a wall as a condition for ending the government shutdown. Trump’s fixation on drugs coming across the U.S. border — he has posted eight Twitter messages on the subject in the past month — dates at least as far back to 2015, when he wrote:

As it happens, El Chapo — the nickname for the drug-cartel boss Joaquín Guzmán Loera — is on trial in federal court in New York City now, and just a day earlier one of his top lieutenants took the stand and testified about the various methods the gang used to smuggle drugs into the U.S. According to the New York Times account, he told “countless stories of … shipping tons of drugs in cars, trains, planes and submarines — even in a truck beneath a load of frozen meat.”

All very ingenious — but it implies that Trump is overlooking an important point: A wall won’t stop an airplane, or any of the other vehicles mentioned, a list that left out, among other known smuggling routes, speedboats and the U.S. Postal Service. And if, as Trump said in his 2015 tweet, smugglers can cross the border “unimpeded,” why would they need to go to the trouble of building a submarine?

Trump claimed in his remarks Friday that aerial surveillance detects “vast numbers of vehicles driving through the desert and entering where you don’t have a very powerful fence or a wall.”

In fact, cartels have much more efficient ways of getting drugs into the U.S. than carrying them across the roadless desert. As the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reported in its 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment, “Mexican TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] transport the majority of their illicit drugs into the United States over land through the SWB [Southwest border] using a wide array of smuggling techniques. The most common method employed by Mexican TCOs involves transporting drugs in vehicles through U.S. ports of entry (POEs). Illicit drugs are smuggled into the United States in concealed compartments within passenger vehicles or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor trailers.”

On Friday, Trump coupled his plea for the wall with a call for “bigger, more powerful” ports of entry with state-of-the-art “drug-finding equipment.”

Trump has also gone back and forth, numerous times, about the physical design of the wall, which at one point was described as concrete, and more recently as something like a giant steel slat fence, which would permit U.S. customs agents to observe activity on the other side. But if the spaces between the slats are wide enough to see through, they would also allow a smuggler to pass a package of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl or most other drugs except (relatively bulky) marijuana. As Gen. John Kelly, at the time the head of U.S. Southern Command, told a Senate hearing in 2015, all the heroin consumed in the U.S. in a year amounts to no more than 50 tons, the equivalent of a couple of shipping containers. Of course, drugs are only one of the things Trump claims his plan will stop — illegal immigrants, gang members and terrorists, for example. But building a wall through thousands of miles of desert in hopes of intercepting contraband that has so many easier routes into the country seems — to Democrats certainly — like a waste of money.

Oh, and you can always dig a tunnel underneath it.

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