© Camil Zahner fenatyl illegal drugs_44228086
© Camil Zahner

Organised crime gangs are using mail and express parcel carriers to sneak smaller quantities of illegal drugs into the US, it has been revealed.

In January, the US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agency went after the underbelly of illegal e-commerce in a five-day sting with partner agencies at JFK Airport.

They targeted and intercepted parcels entering the US by air, focusing on express mail from Hong Kong and China, an operation that yielded 2.4kg of fentanyl and other illicit substances.

More than 1,300 of the shipments inspected proved “non-compliant” – a ratio of 43%.

The findings were formally brought to the attention of US lawmakers in June. In written testimony to a judicial house committee, CBP commissioner Robert Perez outlined the problem of illegal drugs entering the US, focusing on the use of mail and express parcel carriers.

“One way in which illicit synthetic drugs enter the United States is through online purchases which are delivered to domestic purchasers via US mail or express consignment couriers,” he wrote.

Mail posed particular problems, he noted.

Not only is inbound mail inspected largely by hand, the fact that the international mail system is not integrated means there are few opportunities for advance manifest data that would facilitate efforts to identify and target suspicious traffic. (The CBP’s National Targeting Center uses a host of data and sources to identify and target suspicious patterns, however)

Mr Perez believes the CBP and its partner agencies will need more resources to deal with a problem that is expected to get worse.

“Based on increased flow and improved detection capabilities, CBP anticipates that illicit synthetic opioid seizures will rise over FY 2017,” Mr Perez wrote.

The agency’s efforts rarely yield large drug seizures in individual operations.

“In the mail and express consignment environments, drug trafficking organisations and individual purchasers move synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, in small quantities to try to evade detection, making targeting a challenge in both the mail and express consignment environments,” Mr Perez noted.

In a recent speech, Mr Perez’s boss, acting CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan, outlined additional challenges for the government agency with regard to stemming the flow of illegal drugs into the US via express parcels and mail. The rising volume of traffic is challenging the CBP’s resources in smaller ports, he noted.

Resources are also overwhelmed by the routing of parcels through non-traditional entry points, he added. Finally, he noted, the challenges are compounded by a lack of automation and insufficient sharing of information between government agencies.

And a further problem is that much of this traffic does not require the full data set associated with dutiable inbound flows, as it is below the de minimis threshold of US$800.

In 2016, the US raised this from $200 to $800 to bring it in line with the limit on purchases US citizens can bring in on their return from foreign travel. A number of industry bodies, including the Express Association of America, were vocal supporters of the change.

In his testimony, Mr Perez says a collective, multi-layered approach is necessary.

“There is no single entity or single solution that can stop the flow of dangerous synthetic drugs into the United States, or out of the hands of the American public. Tackling this complex threat involves a united, comprehensive strategy and an aggressive approach by multiple entities – from law enforcement, science, medicine, education, social work and the public health sector – across all levels of government,” he argued.

This does not mean the CBP is waiting for others to take the initiative. Mr McAleenan has indicated that the agency would be releasing a new e-commerce strategy soon.

For now details are under wraps. The agency declined to discuss questions from The Loadstar on the issue of packages that qualify for de minimis, securing resources to deal with the rising volume of parcel traffic and the flow of shipments through smaller gateways, and potential additional steps to stem the flow of non-compliant shipments, especially of drugs.

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