NEW YORK — Chinese drug traffickers had some advice for American buyers of fentanyl: Let us ship it to you by regular mail.
It might be slower than FedEx or UPS, but the opioid is much more likely to reach its destination through the U.S. Postal Service.
These digital drug dealers wrote their U.S.-based customers - in emails later uncovered by federal investigators - that private delivery companies electronically tracked packages, allowing the easy identification of mail from suspect addresses and creating a bright trail connecting sellers and buyers of illegal fentanyl.
The Postal Service for years did not institute similar safeguards — and that gaping hole in the nation's borders has not been fully closed despite legislation compelling its elimination.
Fifteen percent of all packages from China are still not electronically tracked. The figure rises to 40% for all packages from around the world entering the United States.
"What do we not know about these packages that are coming in?" asked Frank Russo, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection port director at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
"When you're talking about a million packages a day," he said, noting the amount of international mail arriving at JFK alone, "40% is a large number."
On Aug. 21, the Trump administration sanctioned three Chinese nationals accused of trafficking fentanyl. Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the "Chinese kingpins" directly contributed to the nation's opioid addiction crisis.
"Themost common distribution medium is via the U.S. Postal Service," the Treasury Department said.
Trump later tweeted that he was "ordering all carriers," including the Postal Service, "to SEARCH FOR & REFUSE all deliveries of Fentanyl from China (or anywhere else!)."
The illicit use of the U.S. mail system, widely recognized but unaddressed for years, was just one in a number of persistent vulnerabilities at the nation's ports of entry and in international mail centers as the fentanyl epidemic metastasized and tens of thousands of Americans died, according to dozens of interviews with law enforcement officials and lawmakers and internal government documents.
Thomas Overacker, executive director of cargo and conveyance security for Customs and Border Protection, told Congress in July that his agency is able to inspect only about 2% of cars and 16% of commercial vehicles that come across ports of entry at the southwest border — another major pathway for fentanyl.
CBP has experienced a critical shortage of officers and trained dogs. Last year, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., released a report concluding that the agency had 4,000 fewer officers at the nation's ports of entry than were needed.
Such warnings have been sounded for years.
Four years after the fentanyl epidemic began in 2013, Customs and Border Protection was not deploying enough officers or portable spectrometers that could detect the drug to make a significant dent in the flow of the synthetic opioid, according to government reports and interviews.
Dogs also were not trained to detect fentanyl at any ports of entry, including in the mail, until 2017. That was two years after the Drug Enforcement Administration alerted that the drug was being ordered over the Internet and shipped directly to U.S. mailboxes from China or smuggled in vehicles or containers crossing the border from Mexico.
Fentanyl — 50 times more potent than heroin — has fueled the deadliest drug epidemic in American history. From 2013 through 2017, more than 67,000 people died of synthetic opioid-related overdoses, the majority of them from fentanyl. In 2018, an additional 31,473 Americans died, according to the latest available figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While prescription opioid overdoses fell last year, deaths from fentanyl rose, according to provisional data in a CDC report released in July. Fentanyl is the third wave of the opioid epidemic, which began with prescription pills, migrated to heroin and then morphed into the current crisis.
Responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress passed a law in 2002 requiring advanced electronic data on every package coming into the United States through commercial companies, such as UPS and FedEx. Lawmakers feared that terrorists could mail biological and other weapons into the country.
But the legislation exempted the Postal Service, which feared that the new rules would slow down delivery and be too costly to implement. Under the law, the secretaries of the treasury and homeland security were supposed to consult with the U.S. postmaster general to determine whether it was "appropriate" for the Postal Service to require the tracking data. No such consultation ever happened, according to government officials.
In 2018, Congress passed another tracking law, this time to try to stanch the flow of fentanyl coursing through the mail. The measure requires that all packages from foreign countries include tracking data.
The Postal Service tried to defeat the measure and has still not implemented all the safeguards required, such as tracking the senders and receivers of all packages from China, said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who co-sponsored the bill.
"How many people have to die before the post office gets serious about this?" Portman said in an interview.
The Postal Service said it is moving as quickly as it can to comply with the law.