WASHINGTON — Federal agents are struggling to stop opioid smugglers who are reaping vast profits, according to interviews and documents, as the number of Americans dying from drug overdoses continues to rise.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security say the drugs are shipped in such minute amounts that detecting them among cargo in a tractor-trailer is close to impossible. That the drugs increasingly are bought online and shipped directly to buyers — either through the Postal Service or commercial couriers like FedEx and UPS — makes inspections all the more difficult.
“The sheer logistical nature of trying to pick out which packages contain opioids makes it much more challenging,” said Robert E. Perez, an acting executive assistant commissioner at United States Customs and Border Protection, an arm of the department.
“It’s unlike anything we’ve encountered.”
China is the largest source of illegal fentanyl for American buyers, officials said, and buyers are increasingly paying with digital currencies for drugs that are shipped through other countries — often Mexico or Canada — to reduce the risk of the opioids being tracked and seized by customs officials.
“When you’re dealing with very small, minute quantities, it’s kind of like death by a thousand cuts,” said Patrick J. Lechleitner, the special agent in charge of the Washington office of Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“You used to have the tractor-trailer running up the interstate, with its contraband, that had to be met by someone and distributed,” Mr. Lechleitner said. “Now, you have an individual sitting somewhere in middle America ordering this thing, and it arrives as a parcel at their house.”
A few years ago, officials said they rarely, if ever, encountered smuggled fentanyl or other opioids. Last year, Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents found more than 1,485 pounds of fentanyl at American ports of entries. Already this year, customs officers and border agents so far have seized 1,060 pounds of fentanyl.
The drugs are potent in small doses. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. It is often mixed with heroin or cocaine and used by consumers who are unaware they are taking fentanyl. Though far more opioids are smuggled across the southwest border, officials said, those that are shipped by mail tend to be far more potent.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were linked to 42,249 deaths in the United States in 2016, the latest data available show. More than half were attributed to fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, and the numbers continue to rise, the data show.
It is unclear how many deaths were attributed to prescriptions by doctors and how many were from synthetic opioids smuggled into the country, officials said. The going market wholesale price for a kilogram of cut fentanyl is about $80,000, and can be turned around and sold for a profit of about $1.6 million, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. That is about 20 times more profitable than heroin.
“This is what makes the opioid crisis so unique and dangerous,” said Peter Vincent, who led ICE’s international operations during the Obama administration. “Traditionally, law enforcement has focused on large quantities of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. But very small amounts of opioids can bring tremendous profits.”
Officials at Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations said they have made significant gains in locating illegal opioids at land borders and at international mail facilities. They are increasingly relying on hand-held sensors that can peek inside packages and detect potent, but tiny, shipments of opioids. The customs agency has also trained a number of dogs to detect fentanyl and other opioids.
Each day, dozens of officers at the National Targeting Center comb through passenger lists for all flights arriving in the United States and cargo manifests of ships. Matching them to law enforcement and intelligence databases, the officers identify people and cargo that should be stopped or examined at the borders.
Homeland Security Investigations agents and analysts scour the dark web for sites that sell opioids. Agents also use software to analyze digital currency transactions to search for the identities of those behind them.
Additionally, undercover operations infiltrate suspected networks of opioid smugglers, officials said. Homeland Security Investigations is providing dark web investigations and digital currency training to state and local law enforcement agencies.
Homeland security officials said these efforts have led to the opening of hundreds of investigations of suspected opioid smugglers. In April, the authorities accused 45 people of participating in a drug trafficking ring that attempted to sell more than 30 kilograms of fentanyl in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine.
In March, two men and a woman were arrested in Ohio after the authorities seized a package of fentanyl destined for Texas. During the same time, two Chicago-area men were charged with importing fentanyl from China; officials said the drugs were shipped through the mail to 19 addresses.
In January, President Trump approved spending $9 million on screening devices and other drug detection tools for Customs and Border Protection officers at land-based ports of entry, airports and international mail facilities.
Congress provided the agency with an additional $284 million in April for port and drug inspection technologies — $71 million of which was specifically for opioid detection.
Officials at border agencies said they are working with law enforcement officials abroad to stem the flow of opioids into the United States, including a case against a smuggler in China who was suspected of shipping opioids overseas, Mr. Perez said.
Customs and Border Protection is ramping up coordination with China’s customs organizations to share more shipping data, said Kevin McAleenan, the agency’s commissioner. He said data sharing on shipment tracking has brought a 65 percent increase over the past year in the number of intercepted packages of fentanyl.
Still, tracking and arresting smugglers remains a challenge. A staffing shortage at the southwest border, where Mr. Trump is cracking down on illegal immigration, has pulled Customs and Border Protection officers from airports.
The agency is understaffed at ports of entry by an estimated 4,000 officers, according to a May report by the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Ports in San Diego and Tucson, which account for 57 percent of all of the opioids seized by customs officers between 2016 and 2017, have assigned temporary staff to fulfill personnel needs.
The Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget calls for drastically increasing Border Patrol and ICE staff, but does not add additional officers at ports of entry. Officials at Customs and Border Protection said they have increased staffing at the six main international mail facilities by 20 percent over the past six months.
Officials at Homeland Security Investigations also are squeezed by the opioid crisis. Steve Francis, the special agent in charge in Detroit, said he has shifted some agents from Michigan to Ohio, which has been particularly hard hit by the epidemic.
Unintentional drug-related overdoses involving fentanyl caused the deaths of 2,357 Ohio residents in 2016, state records show. Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, credits agencies like Homeland Security Investigations for stepping up investigations to combat the problem.
But, he added, “There’s no doubt that more funding is an important component if we’re going to make real progress.”
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