Wall Won’t Keep Drugs Out of U.S.

AOld_concrete_wallThere is a lot of shouting these days about the need for a wall along the Mexican-American border. If we tune out the vacuous rhetoric emanating from the sadder voices in American politics, we are able to consider the fallacies that such a culturally and environmentally damaging proposal hinges on.

Wall wailers argue that a physical barrier would dramatically curb the flow of unauthorized immigration and illicit drugs into the United States. Criminologists are well aware that official data on any illegal activity – be it domestic or international – paints an extremely limited picture of the real situation, given the ever-looming ‘dark figure’ of undetected, unreported, and undocumented crime, and the matter at hand is no exception to the rule. Nevertheless, strong evidence suggests that a wall would do very little to prevent drug trafficking or unauthorized immigration.

While it is true that many migrants attempt to enter the U.S. without inspection,  researchers at the Center for Migration Studies argue that “the number of [undocumented migrants] who stayed beyond the period authorized by their temporary visas (overstays) exceeded the number who entered across the southern land border without inspection (EWIs) in each year from 2008 to 2012” (Warren & Kerwin 2015: 81). According to their estimates, overstays accounted for as much as fifty-eight percent of all unauthorized arrivals in a given year since 2008. Evidently, a wall does little to prevent visa overstays.

The counter-argument is that EWIs could include migrants who would otherwise be inadmissible due to criminal records or ties to terrorist organizations. And yet research consistently shows that “immigration – even if illegal – is associated with lower crime rates in most disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods” (Sampson 2008: 29).

At this point in the debate, conservatives who might concede these points on unauthorized immigration frequently fall back on the claim that a wall would choke the supply of illicit substances that enter through the Mexican-American border.

Indeed, the vast majority of South American cocaine enters the U.S. via Mexico and American law enforcement seizures of heroin along the border have increased significantly over the past several years, according to U.S. State Department’s 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

The real question, however, is how do these drugs cross the border?

Answer: Licit and illicit trade flow through the same channels.

In order to minimize risk, the majority of drugs enter the U.S. via ports of entry (POEs) at the border. According to a former drug cartel member, illicit drugs are simply too valuable to risk crossing in the wilderness between POEs (Payan 2006: 32).

Instead, drug trafficking organizations largely prefer smuggling drugs aboard the millions of commercial trucks that carry approximately eighty percent of all U.S.-Mexico trade annually (Hufbauer & Schott 2005: 26) Thanks to the liberalization of trade relations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the increases in commercial traffic along the border, coupled with much heavier flows of international capital between the two countries, meant that seizing drugs and the resulting profits would be akin to finding a needle in a haystack (Dermota 2000: 16).

U.S. Customs agents can only realistically inspect three percent of all laden trucks that cross the border (Friman & Andreas 1999:134). In fact, as the NAFTA negotiations progressed, a 1993 report written by an intelligence officer stationed at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City confirmed that drug traffickers were purchasing factories, warehouses, and trucking companies in preparation for the NAFTA boom in trade (Wise 1998: 209).

Yes, we’ve seen the tunnels, the warehouses, and perhaps less sophisticated operations do attempt open border crossings, but the inconvenient truth for wall wailers is that the vast majority of the drugs enter through legal channels, much like their beloved Maquiladora made consumer products.

Long story short, even if we disregard the xenophobia and bigotry that is on flagrant display in the wall wailing community – not that we should – their proposal does next to nothing to cast off the ‘evils’ of the outside. Instead, it sends a message of fear and ignorance that, heaven forbid, might just bear the name of an ignorant fear-monger.


Andreas, Peter (1996) “U.S. Mexico: Open Markets, Closed Border”. Foreign Policy: No. 103, pp.51-69.

Dermota, Ken (2000) “Snow Business: Drugs and the Spirit of Capitalism.” World Policy Journal: Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 15-24.

Friman, Richard H. and Andreas, Peter (1999) The Illicit Global Economy & State Power. New York:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hufbauer, Gary C. and Schott, Jeffrey J (2005) NAFTA Revisited Achievements and Challenges.
Washington DC: Institute for International Economics.

Payan, Tony (2006) The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars. West Port: Praeger Security International.

Sampson, Robert J. (2008) “Rethinking Crime and Immigration” Context: Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 28–33.

Warren, Robert and Kerwin, Donald (2015) “Beyond DAPA and DACA: Revisiting Legislative Reform in Light of Long-Term Trends in Unauthorized Immigration to the United States” Journal on Migration and Human Security: Vol. 3, No. 1, pp.80-108.

Wise, Carol (1998) Post-NAFTA Political Economy: Mexico and the Western Hemisphere. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press

World Drug Report 2011. Rep. New York: United Nations.

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