Who smuggles the most fentanyl across the southern border? Illegal immigrants or U.S. citizens?

NOGALES, Ariz. – Many people blame illegal immigrants for the thousands of pounds of fentanyl flowing into the U.S. every month from Mexico. However, a new NPR article shines a light on the fact that most couriers who smuggle illegal drugs are U.S. citizens.

NPR talked to a U.S. woman who tried to carry 1,000 fentanyl pills inside her body as she crossed the border. The woman, known as “Haley” in the article, said that she was struggling with a methamphetamine addiction, had lost her job and had lost custody of her children. She was offered $500 to smuggle the drugs.

“When you’re on drugs, your mind’s not fully there. You’re not fully thinking. You’re just like, OK, I can get this over with and get my bill paid, you know? You’re not thinking about what you’re doing to your body, what you’re doing to others,” Haley told NPR.

According to research by the Brookings Institution, Mexican cartels predominantly hire U.S. citizens to smuggle drugs across the border. U.S. citizens are more than 85% of those convicted of fentanyl trafficking charges, and around 90% of fentanyl seizures occur in legal ports of entry. Researchers found that drugs are frequently hidden in concealed vehicle compartments driven by U.S. citizens with U.S. license plates, along with legal cargo entering the U.S. through legal ports of entry. While these are the primary ways drugs enter the U.S., drug trafficking groups also use other methods, such as tunnels, maritime boats, illegal immigrants and drones.

Law enforcement told NPR that cartels try to hire smugglers who are authorized to cross the border and go back and forth often, so customs officers are not suspicious.

“They’re looking for somebody we’re not going to pay a lot of attention to,” Michael Humphries, the port director in Nogales, Arizona, told NPR.

Four states share a border with Mexico, but as Emily’s Hope previously reported, more than 50% of fentanyl is entering the U.S. through Arizona. California follows closely, accounting for 46.3% of the fentanyl inflow, with Texas and Mexico registering a mere 1% of drug seizures.

Over the last year, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized a historic 260,000 pounds of illicit drugs, including nearly 15,000 pounds of fentanyl, primarily at border ports of entry.