Fentanyl Scanners Currently Collecting Cobwebs Will Finally Be Installed at Border Crossings 

luchschenF / shutterstock.com

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is incredibly potent, surpassing heroin and morphine in strength. Medically, it’s used for severe pain management and sedation, but its potency makes it extremely dangerous outside controlled settings. Illicitly produced fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs and sold as powders, nasal sprays, or counterfeit pills, posing grave risks to users.  

Illicit Fentanyl is mainly smuggled into the United States through the southern border by criminal groups operating in Mexico. It’s often brought in through official border points, hidden in vehicles. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has seen a worrying increase in fentanyl seizures, with over 11,200 pounds seized in fiscal year 2021 and 12,900 pounds by August 2022.  

Border Patrol intercepted 2,200 pounds of fentanyl in fiscal year 2023 alone. CPB has seized over 27,000 pounds from October 2022 to September 2023. With a lethal dose of just around 2mg, the amount of fentanyl seized so far would kill more than 13 billion people. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says that 95% of the drug is smuggled through legal checkpoints and vehicles rather than by individuals crossing illegally. 

Now, thanks to the installation of dozens of vehicle scanners at border checkpoints, the amount of fentanyl smuggled across the US border may be significantly reduced. These scanners, labeled Non-intrusive Inspection (NII), allow CBP to use X-rays to scan cars and trucks as they travel through U-shaped screening devices resembling car washes. Drivers can remain in their vehicles during the screening process, enabling traffic to flow more smoothly through border checkpoints. 

However, the already-purchased scanners have been collecting dust in warehouses because Congress has not allocated funds to install them. In March, acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller told NBC News that CBP needed around $3 million to install checkpoint scanners. It’s a small amount compared to the billion already spent purchasing the unused equipment.  

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has highlighted obstacles to installing scanning systems, like space limitations at ports of entry, and noted insufficient funding from Congress to scan all vehicles. There are currently 31 scanners in place, with 27 additional being constructed. 

Congress has now released $200 million of the funds needed to install 56 NII scanners, which can scan 40% of vehicles passing through checkpoints. A senior official from CBP explained that vehicles to be scanned won’t be selected randomly; instead, they’ll focus on vehicles deemed to pose the greatest risk. 

While scanning 100% of vehicles would be preferable, 40% is still far better than the current rate of less than 5% of private and 20% of commercial vehicles now being scanned at ports of entry. But former CBP agent Bobby Wyatt expressed his frustration, asking, “If you were a drug smuggler, would you go to a port that had an X-ray? Or would you go to the one next to it that didn’t?” 

At ports of entry where scanning equipment is unavailable, customs officers must depend on their judgment to identify suspicious activity and hold vehicles for additional inspection. 

Fentanyl smuggling is a risky yet lucrative business for traffickers. A gram of fentanyl can fetch $150 to $200 on the streets, and traffickers mix fentanyl with other drugs like heroin or cocaine to enhance their effects and create a more addictive product.  

The majority of illegal fentanyl found in the United States originates from China, which serves as a major supplier of drugs and chemicals, including fentanyl and its variations. Chinese exports encompass raw fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and counterfeit prescription medications like oxycodone infused with fentanyl. While some shipments of fentanyl enter the U.S. directly from China, others transit through Mexico before reaching the U.S. border. 

Artificial intelligence could significantly enhance fentanyl scanning efficiency, a future goal of CBP. With AI technology, officers could receive alerts about truck anomalies or changes since their last crossings from Mexico, such as altered license plates, weight differences, or different drivers. Pangiam, a company near Washington, D.C., was recently granted $21.5 million by CBP to develop new AI-based technology to detect such irregularities in border traffic.  

An investigation is underway to determine how DHS spent so much money on the scanners with so little to show for it. But that’s no comfort for thousands of families grieving the fentanyl-related loss of a loved one; the installation of the scanners that may have prevented their deaths is already too late.