Apprehensions of illegal immigrants by the Border Patrol have been dropping precipitously over the past couple of years, but Border Patrol seizures of illegal drugs—mostly marijuana—are dramatically higher.

Over the past eight years, Congress and the Bush administration more than doubled the number of Border Patrol agents to keep the homeland protected against terrorists and illegal immigrants. But as immigration flows diminished and concern about border-crossing terrorists diminished, the 18,000-strong Border Patrol is increasingly seen as standing on the frontline of the drug war.

Decades of Drug Wars

Even before President Richard Nixon declared the "war on drugs" in 1971, the Border Patrol played a key role in illegal drug control. Notably, Border Patrol agents searched all northbound vehicles along the U.S.-Mexico border for marijuana and other drugs as part of Nixon’s short-lived "Operation Intercept" in 1969. The Nixon administration’s determination to block supplies of Mexican marijuana to the expanding U.S. market through the unilateral Operation Intercept quickly eroded in the face of protests by the Mexican government and businesses on both sides of the border.

Although the first foray in the incipient drug war failed dismally, President Nixon persisted in his determination to criminalize and militarize drug control. The prohibition campaign that began in the United States has since spread around the globe, often with U.S. assistance and under U.S. direction. At first, the drug war was largely regarded as a war on the home front, although what may be regarded as one of the opening forays took place on the international border.

Over the past four decades the drug war has become a global war fought by the United States to eradicate drug production and to interdict narcotics shipments. The initial primary focus on treatment, especially for heroin addiction, quickly gave way to the prevailing focus on suppression and imprisonment.

As the U.S.-supported drug war in Mexico rages, rising concern that the related violence may spill over the border has led to new calls to reinforce border security. Although expressing concerns about militarizing the border, the Obama administration is responding by beefing up the presence of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Largely in response to the drug-related violence in Mexico and calls from border state politicians for more federal assistance, DHS has reshaped its Border Security Initiative with more personnel and resources. There is little evidence that drug violence in Mexico is spilling over the border. But since Sept. 11 the states and counties of the borderland have experienced an upsurge in federal funding in the border-focused programs of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, and they have used concern about drug violence in Mexico to call for yet more federal funding.

Fence construction, the fortification of ports of entry, the proliferation of Border Patrol agents and their vehicles, immigrant prisons, and an expanding criminal justice system to handle "criminal aliens" have proven an economic boon to the border—and new fears about border security have been used to drum up yet more border security funding.

Immigration restrictionists have jumped on the issue of drug-related violence in Mexico to renew their demands for more border security in the form of an extended border fence, more Border Patrol agents, and the deployment of the National Guard. On March 9, 30 anti-immigration Republican congressional representatives signed a letter to President Obama requesting more border fencing.

"Contiguous fencing is an effective and proven enforcement mechanism that will serve to directly reduce cross-border traffic and drug violence by closing the smuggling corridors exploited by drug cartels," the letter states. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), were the lead signatories of the letter.

Dangerous People and Dangerous Goods

DHS’ Custom and Border Protection (CBP) agency, which includes the Border Patrol, explains its drug war mission this way:

"Drug interdiction is a priority undertaking encapsulated by CBP’s overall mission to secure the nation’s borders and prevent unlawful entry of dangerous people and goods while facilitating the legitimate flow of travel and trade. CBP’s border and border nexus drug interdiction activities contribute to the National Drug Control Strategy by disrupting the flow of drugs into the United States."

When the CBP says it is protecting the homeland against "dangerous people and goods," it in effect is talking about illegal immigrants and illegal drugs. The Border Patrol is as much a drug enforcement agency as an immigration control force. At the CBP ports of entry and at their proliferating highway checkpoints, drug-sniffing dogs, car searches, and billboards announcing the quantities of drugs seized at each location sends the clear message that illegal drugs are regarded as a serious threat to homeland security.

On both sides of the border, marijuana holds the most prominent place in the drug war. During its nearly year-long deployment in the border state of Chihuahua, the Mexican Army points to the tonnage of marijuana seizures as the best evidence of its success in its campaign against the drug organizations. The army regularly stages photo-ops of bundles of seized marijuana going up in flames.

Forty years after President Nixon’s Operation Intercept, the Border Patrol is still hailing the quantity of marijuana it seizes as evidence that it is winning the drug war. The Tucson Sector Border Patrol recently announced that it had seized more than 500,000 pounds of marijuana since October 1—a 22% increase over the same period last year.

In the same period the Border Patrol reported having seized only 53.13 ounces of heroin, 65.25 pounds of cocaine, and 6.39 pounds of methamphetamines. Marijuana, which ignited the drug war four decades ago, remains central to the war as it plays out in Mexico and along the border. According to the DEA, the smuggling of marijuana into the United States from Mexico has increased over the past two years to meet a new surge in U.S. demand.

In March the Tucson sector seized a record quantity of marijuana—138,000 pounds. Border Patrol officials boast that they are seizing an average of 4,450 pounds of weed a day.

Border Patrol agent Mario Escalante said that increased border security measures of DHS’ Border Security Initiative are paying off in drug seizures. "When we use those resources correctly and mix the remote areas or the areas where before we didn’t have as much presence, you start seeing the types of numbers and how the numbers increase as far as the seizures—and that’s exactly what we wanted," he told an Arizona media outlet.

"Risk-Based" Drug Control

CBP has "performance metrics" to measure its contribution to the drug war. Although it doesn’t set target goals, it does measure the quantity of drugs seized annually. Its "performance objective" is "using a risk-based approach, [to] deploy and employ the most effective inspection and scanning technology available at designated land border ports, airports, seaports, permanent Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, and international areas …"

Despite this "risk-based approach," marijuana, a non-addictive plant and the least harmful of the targeted illegal drugs, has for the past four decades consistently topped the list of "dangerous goods" seized. In 2008 CBP seized 2,471,931 pounds of marijuana. That’s up from the 1,339,492 pounds seized in 2005 but down 11% from 2007 seizures. It also reports cocaine and heroin seizures in its annual performance reports. In 2008 CBP seized 178,770 pounds of cocaine and 2,178 pounds of heroin.

Outdoing even the DEA in announcements of drug-war victories, the Border Patrol issued a flood of press releases about its drug seizures. The Border Patrol has announced a string of seizures in 24-hour drug-seizure "busts." Over a 24-hour period in Hidalgo County, Texas, the Border Patrol boasted that it had seized more than $3.6 million worth of marijuana. About the same time on the northern border, Border Patrol agents at the Sweet Water port of entry in Montana seized $284,000 worth of "drug paraphernalia" in the form of 5,380 assorted pipes and bongs. "I’ve never seen so many shipments at a time," said Sandy Owens, chief of the Sweet Grass Port of Entry for 16 years.

One of the hot spots for marijuana interdiction is in the Border Patrol’s Yuma, Arizona sector. As elsewhere along the border, Border Patrol agents aren’t arresting many illegal border crossers lately. On some days, the immigrant arrest count is in the single digits. But all along the border BP agents are still focused on their drug war mission, especially at the dozens of permanent and temporary checkpoints that are mounted along roads within the 100-mile wide swath of borderlands in which they operate.

The merger of the drug war and the immigrant crackdown is on vivid display throughout the borderlands at an increasing number of CBP highway checkpoints. These checkpoints—33 permanent and numerous "tactical" or temporary ones—are raising the ire of borderlands residents who are being repeatedly stopped, interrogated, and having their vehicles searched. Borderland residents complain that the permanent and tactical checkpoints are violating their constitutional rights and victimizing legal U.S. residents, while smugglers avoid the permanent checkpoints and deploy scouts to notify them of the tactical ones.

"Zero-Tolerance" Drug Crackdown

An investigative report in the Phoenix New Times (Mar. 13) found that a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint in the Yuma sector was reaping thousands of recreational drug users. While vehicles passing the checkpoint on Interstate 8 are not routinely searched by Border Patrol agents, K9 dogs go up and down the line of stopped traffic sniffing for traces of illegal drugs.

Over the past year, the Border Patrol has mounted a joint operation, called Operation Citation, in conjunction with the Yuma County Sheriff’s Department, to issue local-jurisdiction fines for drug possession. In a twist of the "interoperability" promoted by DHS’ Criminal Alien and Secure Communities programs, instead of having local police certified as immigration enforcement officers, immigration and border control agents are certified to enforce local drug laws. In the past 11 months, the two Border Patrol checkpoints along the Arizona-Sonora border—"the biggest weed traps in the country"—have nabbed more than 1,200 people for marijuana possession.

Before Operation Citation, Border Patrol agents confiscated drug paraphernalia and small quantities of personal-use drugs and then sent the subject’s information to the county attorney’s office for prosecution. Now, BP agents are cross-certified by the sheriff’s department to issue citations and fines, which has netted the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year.

It’s a zero-tolerance policy, as Border Patrol spokesman Jeremy Schappell told the New Times: "If we get just a pipe, they are getting written up. If it’s a seed, they are getting written up."

The proliferation of permanent and temporary ("tactical") Border Patrol checkpoints is not limited to the southern border. Across the northern border, there are also rising citizen complaints about the use of the checkpoints to charge recreational drug users. In the state of Washington, U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan told the Border Patrol late last year that he would no longer accept petty marijuana charges.

Sullivan’s frustration with the Border Patrol came to a head, according to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer news report, after agents cited five local men with misdemeanor drug violations after discovering small quantities of marijuana at a BP checkpoint. One of those charged was Stephen Dixon, a disabled veteran who had a doctor’s approval to use marijuana to ease chronic pain. The Border Patrol searched Dixon and his car after a canine team caught a whiff of the illegal drug.

Recalling the search, Dixon, who is missing one leg and has a severely damaged spine, said, I’m not proud of my country anymore. I don’t like what we are doing abroad, and I don’t like what we are doing at home."

The regional Border Patrol chief, John Bates, acknowledged the "limitations of manpower" of the U.S. attorney’s office but said that the Border Patrol agents at these checkpoints would continue to search and confiscate illegal drugs they found and would file charges with the local police. "These are immigration checkpoints," he said, "However, if we encounter other violations of law, we are not going to turn our back on them."

Paul Richmond, who represented Dixon before the U.S. attorney dropped the charge, told the Seattle PI, "We are seeing a tremendous overreach by Border Patrol and Homeland Security. The civil liberties implications are horrendous."

Mission Focus

Since Sept. 11 the White House and the Congress have routinely approved proposals for increased numbers of Border Patrol agents. In the last three years, 6,000 additional agents have been added, bringing the total Border Patrol contingent to more than 18,000—making it by far the largest federal enforcement agency. President Obama has requested funding for an additional 100 Border Patrol and CBP agents as part of his "border security" budget proposal.

It’s unclear if such a large force is needed to patrol the borders to "protect the homeland." As immigration flows have diminished, Border Patrol agents on both the northern and southern borders are spending less of their time and resources on arresting the immigrants they categorize as "dangerous people" and more on drug interdiction.

In implementing its "drug war" mission, CBP says it is "risk-based." But neither the record of its seizures nor the operational deployment of Border Patrol agents indicate that, in practice, CBP and its Border Patrol have a "risk-based" focus. Rather, like its role in immigration enforcement, CBP and the Border Patrol have what is in effect a zero-tolerance policy, and the record of its drug interdictions demonstrate its unfocused, wide-net interpretation of its mission. The vast majority of the drugs that it seizes and the people it arrests are hardly "dangerous" people or goods.

Clearly, there are "dangerous people and goods" that enter our country, and we need government agencies like CBP and the Border Patrol to obstruct this dangerous traffic. But we need to be certain that there is a clear mission focus at CBP and the Border Patrol if we are to continue to pour billions of increasingly scarce taxpayer dollars into border security.

CBP’s annual budget has more than doubled since 2002, and now stands at $10.9 billion. Before President Obama and Congress rush to approve yet more funding for border security, hard questions need to be asked about the lack of mission focus at Homeland Security.

Since the "war on drugs" was launched, the federal government has drafted into the questionable war the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), established in 1973 with the Department of Justice as the sole federal agency responsible for drug control. Since then the drug-war bureaucracy has extended deep into the State Department, Defense Department, and into other parts of the Justice Department. In 1988 President Reagan established yet another front in the drug-war offensive with the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

While the Border Patrol and immigration agents have always had bit parts in the drug war, the integration of border patrol and immigration enforcement into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 not only drafted them into the "war on terrorism" but into becoming major players in the "war on drugs." At the start of a new administration and a new Congress, it’s time to start asking if the Border Patrol is really focused on protecting the nation against dangerous people and goods or if it, like other law enforcement agencies, has become distracted from the public safety and national security missions by an ill-conceived and long-failing drug war.