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The trial of El Chapo revealed more about America than the fight over a border wall

The country does have a crisis on its hands: opioid addiction. Border security is part of the solution, and the money is far better spent where the drugs actually arrive.

photo of joaquin "el chapo" guzman being escorted by soldiers
Although Trump doesn’t names names, Guzmán must be atop the list of “bad hombres” the president rails about.
REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

If President Trump wants to get a handle on a crisis in America by taking action at the Mexican border, he would do well to focus on the trial of a short, 60-something Mexican with a third-grade education. His name is Joaquín Guzmán.

Guzmán, of course, is better known as “El Chapo.” Although Trump doesn’t names names, Guzmán must be atop the list of “bad hombres” the president rails about. Guzmán’s long history of drug trafficking and brutality made him a wanted man on both sides of the border. His lavish lifestyle, daring prison escapes and subsequent ability to evade recapture made him the stuff of legend. Like Trump, his wealth earned him a spot on Forbes’ billionaires list.

Mexican authorities caught Guzmán, presumably for the last time, in 2016. This time they extradited him to the United States. His trial, in a federal court in New York on charges related to trafficking and money laundering, started in November, and would probably have gotten more attention if it hadn’t been proceeding on a parallel track with the drama in Washington over Trump’s demand for a border wall.

Guzmán’s case went to the jury last week, and deliberations pick up again on Monday. Meanwhile, congressional negotiations over funding for border security were reported to have broken down over the weekend, leaving the possibility of another government shutdown on Friday, when temporary funding runs out.

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Trump cites migration, the flow of drugs and human trafficking as reasons for a wall. While nearly everyone agrees that the arrival of thousands of people, largely from Central America, at the border seeking safety and/or work is a serious problem, most also agree that it is something less than a crisis.

On the other hand, it’s widely understood that opioid addiction is a crisis. Overdoses killed more than 47,000 Americans in 2017.  This is a public health emergency so severe that it also is a drag on the economy and a matter of national security. Easy access to prescription drugs got people hooked on opioids. Now, cheap heroin and synthetic drugs such as fentanyl are flooding the market.

Most of the heroin used in the United States is grown and processed in Mexico. Most of the fentanyl is manufactured in China and shipped through Mexico. Guzmán’s trial has laid out how drugs are transported into the United States. A border wall wouldn’t do much good.

Jesus Zambada Garcia, a high-ranking member of Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, testified that tunnels long were the quickest, most secure route. The Washington Post reports that in its history, the Border Patrol has found 200 of them. The longest, connecting San Diego and Tijuana, was found in 2016. It was half a mile long, and equipped with ventilation, rails and electricity. In August, U.S. officials found another tunnel in San Luis, Arizona, and arrested the man who had plunked down $390,000 in cash for an abandoned KFC restaurant that served as its terminus. The Post said the man was in possession of more than $1 million worth of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl.

It quoted the local police chief as saying there already were two 20-foot border fences in the area, running 50 feet apart. Border agents patrolled a dirt path between them.

As tunnels became less of a sure thing, the witnesses testified that traffickers moved on to other methods. Trucks transiting legal border crossings were fitted with double bottoms, or the drugs were disguised in legitimate shipments. Mexican families were paid to hide drugs in special compartments built into cars. Some shipments went by sea – including by submersibles.

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment says that only a “small percentage” of the heroin seized by U.S. officials is taken between official ports of entry. The majority is found in personal vehicles and tractor-trailers at official border crossings.

On Jan. 31, U.S. officials announced their biggest fentanyl bust — at an official border crossing. A truck entering the U.S. at Nogales, Arizona, loaded with cucumbers was hiding 254 pounds of the drug with an estimated value of $3.5 million. It also held 395 pounds of methamphetamine valued at $1.1 million.

To his credit, Trump has spoken out strongly against human trafficking. But the president has some odd ideas about what the problem actually is — citing women who are bound, have their mouths covered in tape and then smuggled into the United States in the backs of cars or trucks. Numerous fact checkers have found little to no evidence of this. Even then, Trump maintains that a border wall would fix the problem.

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Advocates quoted in this New Yorker report cite Justice Department data suggesting that trafficking victims are primarily U.S. citizens. Most of the non-Americans they’re aware of arrive on valid visas, they say. The Trump administration, they charge, is making it more difficult for victims who come forward to remain in the country legally.

Building Trump’s “big, beautiful” border wall might satisfy the urge to do something bold and tangible. But that’s about it. The country does have a crisis on its hands: opioid addiction. Border security is part of the solution, and the money is far better spent where the drugs actually arrive.