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Part 1: Investigating how illicit fentanyl is actually getting into the U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As overdose deaths from fentanyl have soared, the issue has exploded as a top concern in Washington. Most of the illicit fentanyl on U.S. streets is seeping in from Mexico, and immigration authorities say the vast majority of the smuggling happens at official ports of entry. But not everyone believes that's the full story. NPR's Joel Rose traveled to the border to find out what's really happening.

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JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Tractor-trailers idle at the port of Nogales in southern Arizona, waiting to carry more than 30 million pounds a day of tomatoes, grapes and other produce into the U.S., while workers, students and tourists pass through in cars and on foot by the thousands. Hiding in all that legal commerce and traffic are drugs, including fentanyl.

MICHAEL HUMPHRIES: This year, fentanyl is coming in like crazy. It's going throughout the U.S., everywhere we hear about addiction and overdose problems.

ROSE: Michael Humphries is the port director in Nogales. Humphries has decades of experience at U.S. Customs and Border Protection trying to stop contraband at the border. But synthetic opioids like fentanyl are hard to catch because they are so easy to conceal. Fentanyl is also more potent and cheaper to make than organic drugs, like heroin or cocaine. And smugglers have gotten very good at hiding it, especially in passenger cars.

HUMPHRIES: We don't open the trunk and, hey, there's a bag of fentanyl powder or pills. You know, we're looking at in tires, gas tanks, roof, floor, seats - anywhere you can imagine.

ROSE: I mean, you're talking about in the engine sometimes - right? - in the gas tank, like, deep in the vehicles.

HUMPHRIES: We have disassembled engines before. One time they pulled out two pistons from the engine. The void created by that was filled with narcotics, and the engine was still running.

ROSE: Fentanyl seizures have been climbing across the border, especially in California and Arizona. Close to 90% of that fentanyl is seized at ports of entry. Immigration authorities say it is smuggled mostly by U.S. citizens, as well as other travelers who are legally authorized to cross. Virtually none is seized from migrants who are seeking asylum.

TROY MILLER: Our analysis, our intelligence continues to point to most of it's being smuggled at the ports of entry.

ROSE: Troy Miller is the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. He says it is less risky for drug cartels to smuggle fentanyl through the ports.

MILLER: They're able to hide the narcotics in legitimate travel. They're able to surveil the travelers. They have preexisting logistics, routes to move the narcotics quicker.

ROSE: As the number of overdose deaths from fentanyl keeps climbing, smuggling has become a bigger issue in Washington, D.C. And the way fentanyl enters the country has become the subject of intense debate. Some of the leading voices in the Republican Party reject the official narrative that it is mostly coming through the ports. They believe there's a lot more fentanyl that's not being caught.

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MARK GREEN: The video cameras on the border show the cartel members in camouflage outfits, wearing backpacks full of fentanyl, pouring into our country.

CLAY HIGGINS: There's a tremendous amount of illicit fentanyl and meth crossing between the ports of entry.

ROSE: That's Representative Mark Green of Tennessee, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana. It's true that the Border Patrol does catch some fentanyl smuggled between the ports. Here's John Modlin, the chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, testifying at a congressional hearing in February.

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JOHN MODLIN: Last year, we seized about 700 pounds of fentanyl. That was encountered - 52% of that, so the majority of that - was encountered in the field. So that is predominantly being backpacked across the border.

ROSE: The Border Patrol in Tucson is on pace to surpass that total this year. But even so, that is just a small fraction of the 10,000 pounds that were seized in Nogales and other ports in Arizona. Still, Republicans say that there could be far more fentanyl hiding in the backpacks of smugglers that the Border Patrol is not catching because agents are distracted by dealing with migrants crossing the border. Some argue that's allowing smugglers to sneak more of their product across in the wide stretches of terrain between the ports.

JIM CHILTON: These mountains over here are in the ranch.

ROSE: Jim Chilton points to a line of jagged mountains between his house and the U.S.-Mexico border. Chilton is a rancher in southern Arizona, about an hour's drive northwest of Nogales. He will tell anyone who asks about smugglers using the trails through these mountains on his ranch. Chilton says video cameras have captured images of more than 3,000 people over the past two years.

CHILTON: Nobody's in street clothes. They are in camouflage clothing, camouflage backpacks and they're wearing carpet shoes.

ROSE: Carpet shoes are like slippers made of carpet that go over your regular shoes. They hide the tread to make it harder for the Border Patrol to track your footsteps. Chilton has a big pile of carpet shoes in his driveway from people who've crossed his land, but that doesn't prove they were carrying drugs, though Chilton believes some of them were.

CHILTON: I know from the Border Patrol that about 20% of the 3,000 in the last couple years are packing hard drugs - fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, meth.

ROSE: Some local law enforcement officials, though, are skeptical. No one disputes that there's a lot of human smuggling going on in the mountains and desert around Nogales, as migrants pay smugglers thousands of dollars to sneak them into the U.S. without detection. But whether those border crossers are carrying large quantities of fentanyl or other drugs, that is debatable.

ARLETTE CABRERA: And this is, right now, where you would consider a hot location for foreign national activity.

ROSE: Arlette Cabrera is a sheriff's deputy in Santa Cruz County, which includes Nogales. She's also a part of Operation Stonegarden. That's a collaboration with the Border Patrol to catch migrants and smugglers in the rough terrain far from the ports of entry. We rode in her truck to a few popular crossing routes.

CABRERA: As you can see, there's a lot of trees, a lot of green. So it's harder to locate. It's easier for them to hide.

ROSE: Almost every day, Cabrera says she catches migrants walking these trails, trying to sneak further into the U.S. I asked if she's ever caught smugglers carrying fentanyl or other drugs.

CABRERA: So for the past two years and a half (ph) to three years, you don't really see a lot of drug smuggling. I have yet to run into somebody, you know, carrying a good amount of drugs, you know, inside a backpack or anything.

ROSE: Out here, it's mostly people being smuggled, Cabrera says. If you're looking for drugs, she says, they're at the port of entry, where they are largely smuggled by U.S. citizens and other authorized border crossers. We'll meet one of those couriers in the second part of our story tomorrow morning.

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.