Cars approach the San Ysidro Port of Entry from Tijuana, May 18, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why This Matters

Officials are working to combat an overdose crisis acutely affecting San Diego County, known as an “epicenter” in fentanyl trafficking, with more than 2,300 fatal overdoses since 2019.

Authorities seized nearly 3,000 pounds of fentanyl in San Diego County between March and May, marking a 300% increase from the same time last year in an “unprecedented two-month fentanyl-enforcement surge” along the southwest border, officials announced last month. 

That means San Diego County, called an “epicenter” for fentanyl trafficking, could be dealing with more of the drug in local communities than ever before. 

Nearly half of all fentanyl seized by authorities along the U.S.-Mexico border so far this year was seized in the San Diego area.

The effects of the national fentanyl crisis in San Diego have been acute. More than 2,300 people have died from accidental fentanyl overdoses since 2019, according to data from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office

The drug has ravaged unhoused communities in particular, though the total number of fatal overdoses involving fentanyl in the county was lower in 2022 than the previous year, and 2023 appears to show a similar trend.  

Since October, authorities in the San Diego area have seized more than 8,800 pounds of fentanyl, surpassing the amount seized in the previous fiscal year with still four months remaining, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.  

That increase follows years of fentanyl seizures steadily rising in the San Diego area – since at least 2019. Over five years, the amount of fentanyl seized by authorities has jumped more than fivefold.  

But that data on fentanyl seizures only tells part of the story, according to David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego.  

The bigger question is how much fentanyl in the community goes undiscovered by authorities, Shirk said. 

“The 9,000 pounds that they’re touting, what fraction is that of the total amount?” Shirk said. “We’re catching only a fraction and probably a very small fraction of the total amount of fentanyl that’s moving across the border.”  

CBP data also leaves out another important question: the purity level of fentanyl entering the community, which could reveal more about the dosage and lethality of the product, Shirk said.  

“What’s the danger of the product that’s coming across? Is this a lot of poundage and a small amount of fentanyl? Or is it indeed much higher volumes of pure fentanyl that are moving across the border?” Shirk said.  

Methamphetamine and cocaine continue to account for the largest share of illegal drugs seized by CBP in the San Diego area, but over the past five years, fentanyl seizures have outpaced and gradually replaced that of heroin, according to CBP data.  

A spokesperson for CBP did not respond to questions about what officials are doing to intercept fentanyl before it crosses the border and as it travels throughout the interior of the country.  

The agency did, however, share press releases detailing significant drug busts in the San Diego area, including a shipment of fentanyl pills hidden in boxes of green beans and nearly 100 pounds of fentanyl and methamphetamine hidden throughout a sedan crossing the Otay Mesa Port of Entry.    

But interdiction efforts by law enforcement are “a drop in the bucket” when it comes to solving the fentanyl crisis, Shirk said.  

“Unfortunately, interdiction is not the answer,” Shirk said. “The problem of fentanyl overdoses is not a border problem. It’s a problem that has to do with the substance abuse problems we have in the United States.”  

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...