Chief among U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) mission areas is the investigation, disruption and dismantling of transnational criminal organizations that illicitly introduce fentanyl, heroin and other dangerous opioids into the United States, and gravely impact the health and safety of our communities. In March 2018, President Donald J. Trump recognized ICE agency efforts for its critical role as part of law enforcement efforts in the Manchester, New Hampshire, region along with key local, state and federal law enforcement partners in fighting the ongoing opioid crisis. At the forefront of the fight, HSI seized more than 11,000 pounds on fentanyl and opioids in fiscal year 2018. Combating the spread of opioids is a key part of the agency’s narcotics enforcement efforts.
One thing has become very clear in the fight against opioids – law enforcement has taken a unified and comprehensive approach with local emergency services, medical community, legislators and private industry to combat the opioid epidemic. An informed public, willing partners and engaged community are also vital to combating the problem.
According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, mass quantities of fentanyl are being produced in China and brought illegally to the United States, contributing to the growing crisis in the U.S. The rise of fentanyl in the United States can be traced back to China’s large chemical and pharmaceutical industries, which manufacture vast quantities of the drug and its analogues to export to the western hemisphere with little regulatory oversight. Many of those shipments also go to Mexico, where Mexican TCOs profit from their infusion of fentanyl into their narcotics.
At the December 2018 G20 Summit; however, China entered into an agreement with the United States to label fentanyl as a controlled substance. The reclassification will result in Chinese factory owners and sellers being subjected to China’s maximum penalty under the law.
Because of the U.S. nexus to the border, and the mandate to enforce more than 400 federal statutes, ICE’s role in the president’s strategy starts well beyond the borders to prevent dangerous drugs and those engaged in the trafficking and distribution of contraband from reaching our shores. To continue the success of those initiatives and increase its ability to identify the criminal organizations responsible for the opioid crisis, HSI is streamlining its package interdiction efforts and working closely with law enforcement partners and intelligence centers.
To do this, HSI has established a three-pronged approach to combating opioids:
HSI employs the unique capabilities and resources of the Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST), Special Operations Unit (SOU), Joint Task Force Investigations (JTF-I), Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF), High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA), and the National Targeting Center-Investigations (NTC-I), to combat the heroin and fentanyl threat through joint criminal investigations, covert operations, intelligence, and other investigative techniques.
In fiscal year 2018, HSI seized 2,737 pounds of fentanyl, 7,103 pounds of heroin, and 225 pounds of precursor materials. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates one kilogram of fentanyl will produce 1 million to 1.5 million in pill dosage units. This equates to HSI seizing approximately 4,121,220 million pill dosage units in FY18.
Border Enforcement Security Taskforce (BEST)
Border Enforcement Security Taskforces (BEST) are a significant tool used to combat opioid smuggling. In FY18, HSI expanded the BEST program from 88 to 96 groups under 62 sanctioned units throughout the United States at air, sea, and land ports. BEST leverages more than 1,000 federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agents and officers representing more than 100 law enforcement agencies that target opioid smuggling.
HSI established BEST units within international mail facilities specifically targeting opioids. HSI is working with international carriers identifying and intercepting opioid laden parcels entering into the United States. These efforts are aimed at dismantling domestic smugglers and distributors by cutting off their supply chains.
Joint Task Force Investigations
DHS Joint Task Forces (JTF) are a departmental enterprise task force. HSI, has been designated the executor of JTF-I, where other DHS agencies provide a vital supportive and collaborative role. JTF-I’s primary function is to target transnational criminal organizations (TCO) that threaten the United States. Many of the JTF-I’s top-tier investigations are focused on the disrupting and dismantling of TCOs involved in smuggling opioids through the U.S. Border.
OCDETF Program Investigations
The OCDETF program allows HSI special agents to partner and collaborate in investigations using their unique and far reaching authorities. HSI has dedicated personnel on all 11 OCDETF co-located Strike Forces, all of which are investigating opioid cases in their respective areas.
OCDETF has financially sponsored multiple HSI heroin initiatives throughout the U.S. and provides funding to support various programs, including the Contraband Smuggling Unit, the National Gang Unit and OCDETF Strike Forces. In FY18, OCDETF funding was used to directly support HSI BEST opioid interdiction and investigative efforts at international mail facilities and regional mail hubs located at New York, Los Angeles and Cleveland.
National Targeting Center – Investigations
The National Targeting Center – Investigations (NTC-I) was established in 2013 as a collaborative effort with CBP and other federal agencies in furtherance of our shared border security mission. HSI's presence at NTC enhances the joint mission of HSI and CBP to enforce applicable laws, develop criticalintelligence, strengthen relationships with domestic and international partners, and provide law enforcement support during national emergencies. The cornerstone of NTC-I is to strengthen collaboration with CBP and other federal and state agencies who arepart of the NTC unity of effort. With robust information and intelligence sharing, NTC-I supports ongoing HSI investigations and provides quality investigative referrals and intelligence to HSI field offices. NTC-I augments HSI programmatic efforts, such as financial crimes, gang enforcement, intellectual propertyrights, counter-proliferation and human trafficking and smuggling. NTC-I comprises five units, which include the NTC-I Operations section, the Trade Transparency Unit Expansions and Operations sections (TTU) and Financial Crime Investigations (FCI).
NTC-I serves the following functions for ICE:
Liaison with CBP National Targeting Center divisions: NTC-Cargo, NTC-Passenger and Counter-Network
Enhance targeting assistance and comprehensive support with CBP
Provide significant investigative support, case development & enhancement capabilities with advance analytics and forensic accounting
Support national/international targeting and interdiction efforts and initiatives
Enhance post-enforcement (seizures, arrests, etc.) intelligence for investigative exploitation
Collaborate with HSI International Operations and foreign law enforcement in trade and Currency and Monetary Instruments Reports data exchange
Augment HSI programmatic efforts in Financial Investigations, Munitions Control, Illegal Exports, Commercial Fraud, Drug Smuggling, Human Smuggling/Trafficking and Gang Investigations
Special Operations Unit
Special Operations (SOU) is the HSI component operating within the Special Operations Division (SOD), a multi-agency coordination center consisting of representatives from more than 34 federal, local and international agencies.
SOU’s primary mission is to target and exploit command and control communication devices employed by criminal organizations operating across jurisdictional boundaries on a regional, national and international level as well as deconflict investigative leads and share information among its partners.
Two men and a woman from Texas were taken into custody in March after authorities seized a package of fentanyl destined for Ohio. The seizures and arrests follow a joint investigation by the Toledo Bulk Cash Smuggling Task Force, on which HSI is the lead federal agency. The seizure comes days after ICE and Ohio officials announced that HSI special agents had trained more than 300 law enforcement personnel in the state on dark net and virtual currency, which is increasingly how synthetic opioids are purchased.
In February, HSI Columbus special agents were featured in "The Trade," a five-part documentary series on Showtime about the opioid epidemic in the United States. "The Trade" shared the stories of addicts, interwoven with a law enforcement perspective, highlighting HSI's investigative efforts to combat the surge in heroin and opioid-related trafficking and distribution. The 34th International Documentary Association (IDA) recognized "The Trade" as the best episodic documentary series.