Criminal networks traffic a range of drugs including cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. As international borders become increasingly porous, global abuse and accessibility to drugs have become increasingly widespread.
This international trade involves growers, producers, couriers, suppliers and dealers. It affects almost all of our member countries, undermining political and economic stability, ruining the lives of individuals and damaging communities. The end-users and addicts are often the victims of a powerful and manipulative business.
Drug trafficking is often associated with other forms of crime, such as money laundering or corruption. Trafficking routes can also be used by criminal networks to transport other illicit products.
As criminals devise ever-more creative ways of disguising illegal drugs for transport, law enforcement faces challenges in detecting such concealed substances. In addition, new synthetic drugs are produced with regularity, so police need to always be aware of new trends and products on the illicit market.
Currently, estimated drug seizures along the southwest border are abysmal. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has estimated that, at best, law enforcement agencies are catching perhaps 10 percent of illegal drug shipments en route to the US from Mexico – and that figure is thought to be optimistic.
Ingenious tactics by drug networks pose many challenges
Border agencies also have to react as quickly as possible to any shiftsin drug smuggling tactics and techniques deployed by Mexican cartels.
After the government built fences in San Diego, drug smugglers turned to the ocean, underground tunnels and, most commonly, the ports of entry. Last year more than 90 percent of the drug seizures happened in the port of entry, where millions of cars drive into San Diego from Mexico every year.
Cartels “operate like a business, If you put up one wall, they find a way to get around it.” said David Shaw of Homeland Security Investigations. The unit investigates cross-border crimes such as human trafficking, money laundering and drug smuggling.
Since 2001, the San Diego Sector’s Tunnel Task Force has found more than 60 smuggling tunnels in the county. “With the advent of the infrastructure between the ports of entry, one of the unintended consequences were the huge narcotics tunnels that were created that went over 100 feet deep and ran seven or eight football fields in length,” says Unzueta the retired ICE investigator.
When agents focused on pangas, the smugglers began using expensive recreational vessels that blend in with the boats San Diegans use for weekend fishing or scenic cruises. Border Patrol agents have to figure out which ones are coming from Mexico.
It’s not enough for law enforcement officers working along the Southwest border to simply detect illegal drugs. Agents look for anything that could point to drug smuggling, such as custom-made compartments, uneven tires, a nervous driver or a weighted down trunk.
They must use a variety of methods at their disposal to do this, from the über-reliable narcotics detection dogs (or K-9s) to handheld devices called Busters that can detect vehicle structure anomalies. Agents also have at their disposal x-ray and gamma ray scanning systems.
However, it’s not enough to simply find the drugs, which is challenging enough. Agents and officers must also clearly identify what kind of illegal narcotic substance they’ve discovered, whether it be concealed in a vehicle’s truck, wheel wells or windshield wiper fluid tank.
It’s crucial to know what you’re dealing with when you find a mysterious contraband substance. The opioid fentanyl and its related analogs are so potent that what appears to be a very small quantity could be a fatal dose to an unsuspecting testing personnel. It is impossible to distinguish by sight whether a quantity of powder will be fatal, which makes the risk of accidental exposure a major safety issue. Because even trace exposure to some drugs can lead to respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and death, COs must take precautions when searching for contraband.
In addition to personal protective gear like gloves and masks, portable detection tools can increase officer safety by quickly detecting and identifying dangerous substances to help prevent or reduce exposure.
Mass spectrometry (MS) is one of the most powerful techniques for the detection and identification of organic and inorganic compounds. Being able to provide both molecular weight and structural information, it is widely used in analytical laboratories for academic research, industrial product development, and regulatory compliance as well as for proteomic or metabolomic studies, DNA characterization, drug discovery, environmental monitoring, food analysis, forensics, and homeland security.
A plethora of analytical MS-based methods based on the use of both stand-alone instruments and mass spectrometers coupled to different separation techniques such as gas and liquid chromatography (GC and LC) or capillary electrophoresis (CE) have been developed and validated in order to analyze complex matrices.
Recently, the advent of ambient MS technology paved the way for the development of a great variety of applications and innovations characterized by high throughput: the challenge of analyzing samples in their native state without sample treatment encouraged the development of new techniques among which are the spray-based ionization ones including desorption electrospray ionization (DESI), paper spray ionization (PSI), laser ablation electrospray ionization (LAESI) , and easy ambient sonic-spray ionization (EASI).
Novel materials and new instrumental configurations are under study to enhance the performance of the different ion sources. Safety risks can be identified at the early stages through nontargeted monitoring technologies.
Although MS-based methods are getting progressively more powerful, reliable, and easily available, the main drawbacks are still related to sample complexity and preparation, mass accuracy, often requiring the use of high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) to guarantee the univocal identification of the targeted compounds, and the need of high-throughput and screening analyses when a great number of samples have to be analyzed
Handheld portable detectors
The ability to detect and identify the presence of narcotics quickly is critical. The portable detection tools, such as the SABRE 5000, Target-ID and IONSCAN 600 from Smiths Detection, can identify or confirm the presence of narcotics in less than a minute
The handheld SABRE 5000 can identify these substances in seconds using a small swab sample. The SABRE 5000 is optimized to detect methamphetamine and its precursors, as well as cocaine, heroin, THC and others. It can also detect conventional and homemade explosives. The device weighs 7 pounds and provides detection in 10 seconds, with complete analysis in 20 seconds.
A handheld tool like the Target-ID can identify narcotics, synthetic designer drugs and cutting agents in less than a minute from a small sample. The device, which weighs 5.4 pounds, takes less than 40 seconds to start up and comes with a pre-loaded library of up to 2,500 substances including fentanyl and its analogues. The library can be customized and expanded with up to 500 substances specific to your facility’s needs. Analysis with the Target-ID does not destroy a sample, which preserves evidence. Lab-quality results can be printed and are court admissible.
Similarly, the IONSCAN 600, a portable desktop system, detects trace amounts of explosives and narcotics using single-use swabs designed to pick up trace particles. Widely used in airports, this trace detection technology also can be useful in correctional facilities to determine if a person has come in contact with a narcotic. The swabs can be used to examine surfaces in cells and inmates’ belongings, clothing and hands, as well as mail and deliveries or visitors’ belongings.
Within seconds, IONSCAN 600 can identify trace amounts of various illegal narcotics and controlled substances, including morphine, buprenorphine (the active ingredient in Suboxone), cocaine, heroin and fentanyl analogues. The device also offers a specific mode for fentanyl detection.
Once you know a potentially lethal drug is present, you can take the necessary precautions to protect employees and inmates while the substance is contained and removed.
China Creates Ultra-Fast Drug Detector That Tests Luggage With a Needle
Chinese scientists have developed a portable drug detector that improves testing speeds from up to several days to a mere three seconds.
Developed by the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the Yunnan Police College and the Ministry of Public Security, the state-of-the-art mass spectrometer is a 13-kilogram (28.7-pound) device measuring 32 centimeters (12.6 inches) long, 32 centimeters (12.6 inches) wide and 24 centimeters (9.45 inches) tall.
According to the scientists, 10 kinds of mixing drugs with a boiling point difference of 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit) can be simultaneously identified in three seconds under a single analysis, Xinhua reported.
So far, the device has successfully identified 37 kinds of drugs in onsite tests carried out in Yunnan province, southwestern China.
A needle nearly invisible to the naked eye collects the sample from an individual’s personal belongings, which is then analyzed in a machine about the size of a home printer.
The device is capable of detecting drugs in quantities as little as 50 picograms — with 1 picogram equivalent to one trillionth of a gram — CCTV reported.
Li Haiyang, a researcher from the Dalian Institute who led the development of the detector, believes that the days of drug trafficking networks around the world will soon be over.
“The detector can change the war on drugs,” he said, adding that perpetrators will “feel a pinch,” according to the South China Morning Post.
In mainland China, drug trafficking can result in the death penalty, which can be executed via lethal injection or firing squad. In Yunnan, authorities seized drugs such as fentanyl, marijuana and opium across several cities, including Baoshan, Dehong, Mojiang, Tengchong and Yuxi.
The detector, which runs on a rechargeable lithium battery, uses a special flashlight that generates a temperature of up to 500 degrees Celsius (932 Fahrenheit) in 2.5 seconds to vaporize the sample. The detector’s sensitivity means any individual who has made contact with drugs is bound to alert authorities. Apparently, it is expected to become standard on public transport.
“Mass production is on the way. We are working with several companies, and large-scale deployment is possible in a few years,” Li said.