The Port of Philadelphia, a nondescript shipping facility tucked in between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is known for its imports of perishables like make, meat, and dairy. But in recent years, to the chagrin of law enforcement officials, it’s become known for something else: a major drug destination.
Law enforcement officers say cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamines are pouring into the cargo port at an alarming rate. A recent bust at the Philadelphia port by Customs and Border Protection, which received 700 pounds of cocaine hidden in a furniture shipment from Puerto Rico, underscores the disturbing new trend.
“One of the things we’ve noticed at the[ Drug Enforcement Administration] is the amount of cocaine that has been imported to the area has greatly increased, ” said DEA Special Agent Patrick Trainor.
Within the last decade, the Customs and Border Protection, the agency that supervises the ports, has reported major medication busts at the Philadelphia port beginning in 2007, with a seizure of 864 pounds of cocaine, 386 pounds in 2012, 363 pounds in 2015 and, most recently, 709 pounds in 2017, which was the sixth biggest cocaine bust in port history.
And that’s only the amount of drug products federal agents are finding.
The DEA says in the last year the amount of cocaine in the field- and in ports all across the country- has increased because drug traffickers are changing their distribution methods.
With the U.S. stiffening its border with Mexico and Canada, and airports becoming more sophisticated in capturing illegal shipments, dealers are looking at U.S. ports as the newest conduit to smuggle their product.
“We are not exactly surprised to hear that 700 pounds of cocaine were removed from the port, ” Trainor said. “Last year alone, more than 63,000 people died from drug-related overdoses in the U.S. That’s more demise than the entire Vietnam conflict.”
Decades ago, traffickers used the “Caribbean corridor” to ship drugs- a pipeline that moved drugs from South America through Central America and the Caribbean to ports along the Eastern coast. But after the fracturing of the Colombian narcotic empire, traders began moving medications through the porous Mexican border.
But now, for a variety of reasons, including stepped up enforcement at the border, merchants are going back to utilizing the Caribbean corridor and using ports to smuggle their illegal shipments.
“The U.S. was never genuinely able to close the Caribbean corridor, ” said Stratfor, Security and Terrorism analyst Scott Stewart. “And over the last couple of years, things have gotten chaotic in Mexico. So, with a view to responding, we’ve insured a change back to traditional trafficking routes of the 1970 s.”
The shift in tactics represents a growing field of lucrative a chance for smugglers- and has law enforcement officials scrambling to play catch up.
“There’s no silver bullet to catching a drug smuggler, ” says Edward Moriarty, Customs and Border Protection’s acting director for the region port of Philadelphia.
Moriarty said merchants are taking advantage of existing supply chains and using legitimate shipments to keep their illegal drugs flowing into the country. And as soon as law enforcement officers make new technology to curb the medication flowing, traffickers find a loophole.
“It’s sort of like a cat and mouse game, ” Moriarty said. “But that’s where technology comes into play. We are constantly updating our X-ray systems, cameras, and advance intelligence.”
Not merely do big shipments pose a threat to Philadelphians, the city’s close proximity to wide-scale cocaine marketplaces like New York, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Cleveland increase its vulnerability.
“Every port , not just Philadelphia, is susceptible to smugglers, and drug dealers will use any means, person, or condition to sneak contraband into the U.S ., ” Moriarty said.
Experts believe that corruption , not physical security, is among the greatest danger.
“These organizations find bribing people to get the shipments through as an answer to increased security, ” says Stewart.
Last year, the USCBP’s Office of Field Operations attained record-high drug seizures, detecting 56,729 pounds of cocaine, 44,065 pounds of methamphetamines and 951 pounds of fentanyl, which more than doubled since 2016. Law enforcement officers are on pace to also break records in 2018.
The force driving the market, Stewart said, is both supply and demand.
“As long as the U.S. is willing to pay these large amounts of monies for these substances, ” Stewart said, “creative traffickers will find a way to meet that demand.”
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