USPS, FedEx Remain Easiest Way To Ship Fentanyl Into US

By Paul Gaita 06/06/19

"The sheer logistical nature of trying to pick out which packages contain opioids makes it much more challenging," said a Customs and Border Protection official.

Fed Ex driver

A recent federal court case involving 43 members of a methamphetamine distribution network with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel again highlighted the relative ease with which the United States Postal Service (USPS) and private carriers like FedEx can be used to deliver powerful synthetic opioids into the United States.

The case involved a San Diego-based network that shipped methamphetamine and the "club drug" gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) to locations throughout the U.S. using the postal service and FedEx. 

Coverage in Quartz detailed how increases in express shipping, combined with a lack of sufficient staffing at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and carriers like the UPS allow such transactions to take place. 

Former FBI agent Dennis Franks said that the current method of stopping drugs from entering the country through the mail is like "putting your finger in a dike, but there's just not enough fingers to put in all the holes."

The 43 defendants in the federal case used the USPS and fraudulent FedEx accounts to mail drugs to sub-distributors. The FedEx accounts were "billed to and paid for" by large corporations in the belief that the companies would not notice smaller shipment costs.

A joint task force involving the Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Attorney's Offices, sheriff's and police departments, the United States Postal Inspection Service and Federal Bureau of Prisons collaborated to file indictments against 43 members of the network on May 21.

Despite efforts like these, the practice of importing drugs through the USPS and private carriers remains a serious problem for state and federal law enforcement.

According to congressional testimony from the union that represents CBP officers, the agency needs more than double the number of inspectors currently on duty at mail sorting facilities to keep up with the volume of packages to "ensure successful interdiction." 

In the past five years, express shipments have increased by nearly 50%, while international mail shipments have risen more than 200%. But at shipping and receiving hubs like the one maintained by FedEx in Memphis, Tennessee, there were only 15 CBP officers working on the overnight shift to process 86 million shipments in 2018.

"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 for CBP. "It's unlike anything we've encountered."

Policy changes incurred by the change in government administrations, as well as the necessity of a warrant to search any package sent via the USPS, also contribute to the overwhelming issues that confront law enforcement with mail shipments. 

And as Franks noted, the cartels and related networks have their own means of assuring that their deliveries go unchallenged.

"Don't think that these cartels don't have their own 'intelligence services,'" he told Quartz. "Friends, family members working on the inside. So they're going to know how many agents or officers are assigned to which FedEx facility, when they're working, and when they're not."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.