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The opioid crisis has made headlines in recent years. But fentanyl isn’t the only drug fueling overdose deaths across the nation. Methamphetamine use has also grown, as have fatal overdoses. Law enforcement is cracking down on the manufacturing and distribution of these and other controlled substances. But transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) use increasingly sophisticated trafficking techniques to thwart detection. For example, TCO drug traffickers stash meth in auto parts and vehicles transported via semi-trucks to the United States and Canada.

The auto parts smuggling scheme

Trucks carrying cars queue in front of the Otay Mesa border crossing in Tijuana in 2019. In some cases, auto parts hide smuggled meth.
Trucks carrying cars queue in front of the Otay Mesa border crossing in Tijuana in 2019 | Omar Martínez/picture alliance via Getty Images

For the past few years, authorities in the United States and Canada have stopped tractor-trailers transporting auto parts or vehicles from Mexico.

In June 2019, Canadian border patrol agents seized a 400-pound shipment of methamphetamine hidden in the spare tires of 14 Ford Fusion sedans. Apparently, the Sinaloa Cartel had failed to extract the drugs from the cars before they went to nine Ontario Ford dealerships. The cartel had accessed the vehicles after their assembly at a plant in Hermosillo, Mexico, according to The Drive.

And in June 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents seized $420,000 worth of meth from a tractor-trailer hauling auto parts from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, to Laredo, Texas, News4SA reports.

In addition, CBP agents seized a record-breaking amount of meth and fentanyl in a tractor-trailer at the U.S.-Mexico border in November 2021. Carlos Martin Quintana-Arias attempted to sneak almost 18,000 pounds of the drugs through the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego. According to The Guardian, most of the drugs were meth (17,500 pounds), with the remaining 389 pounds consisting of fentanyl.

Most recently, a Mexican national was arrested for trying to drive a semi-truck filled with meth into the U.S. His trailer, carrying auto parts, was inspected by a canine unit that detected the illicit drugs. Per CBP, the auto parts contained more than 3,280 pounds of meth bound for Arizona.

How common is auto parts drug trafficking?

According to The National Drug Intelligence Center, smuggling meth and other drugs in auto parts is common in the United States. Generally, traffickers use ground transportation. However, smuggled meth has been seized from commercial air and water transport.

Mexico-based TCOs typically try to move drugs to staging areas primarily in Arizona, California, and Texas before distributing them nationally. Usually, smugglers use one of seven points of entry: Nogales in Arizona; Calexico, Otay Mesa, and San Ysidro in California; and Hidalgo, Laredo, and Pharr in Texas. From there, the drugs are often distributed to markets such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.

Mexico-based TCOs are the primary producers and suppliers of meth available in the U.S., and the Southwest border is the main entry point. Some domestic producers manufacture meth, but none can match the quantity, purity, or potency of the meth produced by Mexico-based TCOs.

According to the DEA’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, “Commonly, traffickers transport multi-kilogram shipments of methamphetamine in privately owned vehicles. Fuel tank concealment remains a widely used technique … Methamphetamine concealed in tires and other natural voids in vehicles are other popular methods for smuggling.”

Why is meth so dangerous?


Places in a Car That Smugglers Try to Hide Things

If you’re unfamiliar with meth (and the TV show Breaking Bad didn’t scare you enough), it’s a relatively cheap drug that can release as much as four times that amount of dopamine as cocaine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends signals of pleasure to the body. Ingesting meth stimulates the production of dopamine, which is then sent through the body’s nervous system, creating a euphoric feeling.

According to the Addiction Center, a single dose costs as little as $5. However, methamphetamine overdoses occur at nearly twice the rate of heroin overdoses, making meth quite deadly. Further, chronic meth use alters the areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory and can result in anxiety, confusion, insomnia, hallucinations, delusions, and violent behavior. These symptoms can last long after a user has quit meth. Weight loss, tooth decay, and skin sores are also common symptoms.

Meth has historically had a high prevalence in the American West, Midwest, and Southeast. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration has noted a growing market for the drug in the Northeast. Unfortunately, its migration is also fueling a growth in overdose deaths, which, according to WebMD, nearly tripled between 2015 and 2019.

How to get help: In the U.S., contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-662-4357.