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Fentanyl makes its way into the U.S. from Mexico. Who's smuggling it in?

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As overdose deaths from fentanyl have soared, we've heard a lot about the dangers of the synthetic drug and how it's flowing across the southern border from Mexico. What we've rarely heard are the voices of the people, largely U.S. citizens, who actually smuggle that fentanyl across the border. NPR's Joel Rose talked to one of those couriers and brings us her story.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Haley says she had never done anything like this before. One night, she was hanging out with a guy she knew who asked if she wanted to make some extra money.

HALEY: I'm very embarrassed about it, I guess you could say. I'm very, like, ashamed that I didn't know better with carrying it over.

ROSE: Haley is 32 years old. She asked us not to use her last name because she wants to protect her three children. In a way, that is what got her into this. Haley was trying to make money to pay her bills, she says, so that she could regain custody of her children. And $500 seemed like a lot of money.

HALEY: That was the first time I've ever done it, I guess because when you're on drugs, your mind's not fully there. You're not fully thinking. You're just like, OK, I can get this over with and get my bills paid, you know?

ROSE: At the time, Haley was smoking methamphetamine. She'd been addicted to meth once before and gotten sober, but then she relapsed after a bad breakup. This was during the COVID pandemic in 2021, and she was having trouble finding work in Tucson, Ariz., where she lived. So she agreed to drive to Mexico and come back with a bag of pills hidden inside her body.

HALEY: It was fentanyl. I did carry a thousand pills. It was inside of a condom.

ROSE: Prosecutors and defense lawyers both told me that Haley's story is typical in the sense that the vast majority of illicit fentanyl, close to 90%, is seized at ports of entry. Immigration authorities say nearly all of that is smuggled by people who are legally authorized to cross, more than half by U.S. citizens like Haley. Virtually none is smuggled by migrants seeking asylum. Sometimes fentanyl is hidden in tractor trailers carrying loads of legitimate cargo, but more often it's hidden in passenger cars or on the bodies of pedestrians.

ADAM GORDON: There's a popular misconception that it is these giant, giant seizures that are driving the numbers, and that's not it.

ROSE: Adam Gordon is a federal prosecutor in San Diego, one of the busiest smuggling points for fentanyl on the U.S.-Mexico border.

GORDON: The cases that we see every day are individuals who have 5 kilos of fentanyl and 10 kilos of methamphetamine, and those cases are happening constantly.

ROSE: Gordon says drug cartels routinely recruit couriers or mules to get their products across the border, and they're sophisticated about who they target for the job. Michael Humphries is the port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Nogales, Ariz., the same port where Haley tried to cross back from Mexico.

MICHAEL HUMPHRIES: They're looking for somebody we're not going to pay a lot of attention to. They target certain people, and they offer money to drive through. I've been at this for over 36 years, and it's been like that forever.

STEFANI HEPFORD: I've seen 20-year-old couriers. I've seen 60-year-old couriers. It's impossible to generalize.

ROSE: Stefani Hepford is an assistant U.S. attorney in Tucson who has prosecuted dozens of smuggling cases.

HEPFORD: The cartels are smart. They're going to pick couriers that they think are going to be more successful at that point in time. Maybe a middle-aged female is going to be a better option than a 20-year-old male.

ROSE: Law enforcement officials say the ideal candidate is someone who has legal permission to cross the border and goes back and forth a lot because they won't attract attention from customs officers at the port. In that sense, Haley was not a good candidate.

HALEY: I don't go to Mexico. That's not something I do. So, yeah, they knew something was up.

ROSE: The officer asked Haley what she was doing in Mexico.

HALEY: Because this is your first time coming back into the United States, we need to secondary you. And I already knew, you know, I was caught. It was done. In my heart, I knew that I was doing wrong, you know, so I started freaking out, and I kind of told on myself.

ROSE: Haley confessed. She was arrested and charged. She pleaded guilty and went to prison. That's when she met lots of women who had carried drugs through the ports, some of them repeatedly.

HALEY: I've heard girls talk about, you know, I did it. I had it inside of me or - and I'm just like, aren't you lucky? Like, you know, I got caught my first time. People do it over and over again 'cause the money is so good.

ROSE: Law enforcement officials say there is no shortage of people who are willing to do this work. Again, Adam Gordon, the prosecutor in San Diego.

GORDON: Usually they're in very desperate straits. These are individuals who are not wealthy typically, who are usually not being paid very much. Think of anywhere from - call it 1,000 to $5,000 to drive a vehicle across. A lot of it is driven, unfortunately, by addiction.

JESSICA TURK: Typically, my clients have hit rock bottom.

ROSE: Jessica Turk is a defense lawyer outside Tucson. She takes on clients who can't afford a private lawyer, mostly drug smuggling and human smuggling cases. Turk says many of her clients are struggling with addiction.

TURK: Their drug addiction has put them on the street, or they're living in a shed, or they're living in a car. They need money to fuel an addiction, and this is an opportunity that regularly presents itself to people in this area.

ROSE: When couriers get caught at the border, it's often their first serious criminal offense. That was the case for Haley. She cooperated with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence and served six months in prison. But the hardest part, she says, was losing custody of her children.

HALEY: That one decision that I had made to carry - my ex-sister-in-law had to adopt my kids because I got sentenced and I was in jail. Yeah, that was hard.

ROSE: Haley has been sober now for 18 months. She has a job, just bought a car, and she gets to see her kids again, though she says it's been hard trying to rebuild their trust.

HALEY: Six months ago from today, I could tell you my kids didn't really want to be around me. They didn't want to spend the night with me. Today, they're always like, Mom, can we spend another night with you, Mom?

ROSE: Haley says things could have gone a lot worse, considering how much fentanyl she was carrying inside her body.

HALEY: That's a lot of pills. I mean, it's enough to kill a thousand people, right? It was scary. If they would have opened inside of me, I'd be dead. You know, it's a very scary thought. So it's thoughts I don't like to think about a lot, you know?

ROSE: In hindsight, Haley says getting caught at the border on her first attempt was actually good luck.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Nogales, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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