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In-depth: Answers about the Wall, part 2 – drugs and the border

This Jan. 7, 2017 photo, shows the Antelope Wells port of entry from the El Berrendo, Mexico, side of the border with southern New Mexico. (Roberto E. Rosales/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — Drugs come to and through Utah by the thousands if not millions of pounds, and law enforcement officers say a border wall or barrier could help stem that tide.

“Utah is a cartel-friendly state,” says Brian Besser, DEA district agent in charge for Utah. “It’s our demographics and geographics.”

Long miles of emptiness fill much of Utah, particularly south of the heavily-populated Wasatch Front. It makes the state, Besser says, a perfect place for drug traffickers to drive and drive and never get caught. He says drugs are not only driven up from the south and west through Utah to final destinations in other states, but they also come to stay here because of the demand.

“Utah is seeing massive amounts of Mexican sourced methamphetamine, massive amounts of Mexican and Columbian-sourced heroin, and of course fentanyl,” Besser says.

Besser says Utahns are over-using and abusing prescription pills and then moving on to illegal drugs.

“The cartels are flooding Utah streets with cheap, highly potent heroin,” he says.

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The Utah County Sheriff’s Department says more than $850,000 in drugs, mostly cocaine and meth, were found in a car this weekend. A separate bust turned up another $1 million in methamphetamine. (Utah County Sheriff’s Dept.)

Just this past week in Utah County, two different men were arrested with millions of dollars worth of cocaine and meth in their vehicles.

Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon says one of those men has been deported back to Mexico 8 times.

“Whether he’s hiding in a trunk, or using someone else’s ID, climbing over a fence or swimming through a river, he is coming into the United States illegally,” said Cannon.

President Trump says a barrier wall will do much to stop drug smuggling from Mexico.

“They’re brilliant, in many ways. They’re brilliant. You wouldn’t even think of what they do to get things in. And we can stop it,” he told the American Farm Bureau Federation. “But we can’t stop it if we’re going to play politics. And the numbers you’re talking about are peanuts compared — you’ll make the money back numerous times a year.”

“A wall is a huge prohibitor, that’s what a wall is,” says Besser. “No one debates the efficacy of a wall who is in drug law enforcement.”

He says it will stop more drugs from coming north, and stop the flow of money going south, and that will dry up business.

However, Besser says he also knows a wall is not the silver bullet because cartels make it their business to get drugs to where the demand is. In other words, so long as there is a demand, cartels will find a way to supply it. They dig massive tunnels or find new ways to smuggle through checkpoints.

“Drug traffickers will simply come up through the Caribbean or the Atlantic waterways — you know, they’ll fly over the wall, and human smugglers will find a way to circumvent it as well,” said Former DHS acting undersecretary and ABC News Contributor John Cohen.

But decreasing the demand on our end would help, Besser believes. Besser also wants to see more Utah Highway Patrol troopers getting hired and getting better pay. And he says strengthening Utah’s civil asset forfeiture laws will also hit the cartels in the wallet.

Those are things up to the state government, while the federal government continues debating the wall.

Friday, our series continues with a look at gang activity and what a border fence or wall would do to curb that.