Every week, Ohio congressional representative Jim Jordan sends out the same fundraising email with the terrifying headline, “Enough Fentanyl to Kill Every American.” It ties into the conservative talking point that President Joe Biden has left the southern border open to drug cartels, who are bringing deadly synthetic opioids.
Certainly, the idea is fresh in the mind of Governor Greg Abbott, who has used the spike in deaths from illegally manufactured and trafficked fentanyl to further justify his use of the Texas National Guard to police the southern border even as Operation Lone Star drains the state’s coffers and is on the brink of going broke. With little to show for eighteen months of deployment and a string of operative suicides, Abbott has made a lot of hay over fentanyl.
“Operation Lone Star continues to fill the dangerous gaps left by the Biden Administration’s refusal to secure the border,” reads a press release from his office in September. “Every individual who is apprehended or arrested and every ounce of drugs seized would have otherwise made their way into communities across Texas and the nation due to President Biden’s open border policies.”
In his single debate with challenger Beto O’Rourke, Abbott repeated the talking point about how many people the seized amount of fentanyl could kill.
While it’s definitely true that more illegal fentanyl is being smuggled into the United States than in previous years, and that larger amounts of it are being found at the border, it’s worth remembering that Operation Lone Star has done nearly nothing in that regard. The image of troops scouring the wastes between legal border checkpoints for stealthy drug mules may be a romantic one, but it has no resemblance to reality.
As Philip Bump at The Washington Post recent put it, only about 11 percent of fentanyl is seized by the Border Patrol between checkpoints. The vast majority of the seizures happen at legal checkpoints.
It makes sense. Fentanyl is much smaller and easier to transport than other contraband like marijuana and weapons, so it is more likely to get through regular checkpoints unnoiticed. On top of that, a lot of the people who are captured by Operation Lone Star are not trying to avoid the authorities. They are refugees from political turmoil in South American countries, many of which are suffering unrest after decades of interference by the United States. People who actively seek to surrender to police and the military make for poor drug mules.
Plus, most of the people who are physically trafficking the fentanyl are U.S. citizens. Again, these are the people least likely to arouse suspicion and make for better partners in the drug trade.
Operation Lone Star continues to be a major policy failure of Abbott. For all that he cites numbers of people apprehended and pounds of fentanyl confiscated, it’s smoke and mirrors. OLS operatives are accomplishing only a fraction of what traditional border customs work is still doing in the fight against fentanyl, and pretending otherwise obscures the best way forward.