SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — While South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said she was inspecting the state’s National Guard troops in Texas this week, a delegation from the state was set to meet in a trade gathering with buyers, agriculture industry leaders and government officials in Mexico.

South Dakota has significant trade relationship with Mexico, and, according to Noem, an adversarial relationship with Mexican drug cartels she has said bring a large amount of drugs into the state.

Noem has said the federal administration is failing to address the problems at the border between Mexico and the U.S. and that is having a negative impact on South Dakota.

Mexico is South Dakota’s second largest trade partner with an export value of about $600 million in 2022, state officials said in a news release Monday. That value was about $425 million in 2021, according to South Dakota Trade, an organization that promotes trade with countries around the world.

“The situation at our Southern border continues to deteriorate. The Mexican drug cartels are taking advantage of the open border to proliferate their drugs and human trafficking. This criminal activity is making South Dakotans less safe,” Noem said in her Tuesday news release.

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and U.S. Customs and Border agree Mexican cartels create problems for the U.S.

“Mexican TCOs are the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States; they control most of the U.S. drug market and have established varied transportation routes, have advanced communications capabilities, and hold strong affiliations with criminal groups and gangs in the United States,” the DEA has said.

A variety of drugs are smuggled into the U.S. including methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl.

Migrants and drug smuggling?

All of those drugs have been seized in South Dakota but fentanyl has been a frequent topic of drug discussions by law enforcement for the past several years.

When it comes to drug seizures, the South Dakota National Guard and Noem do not appear to be in the hot spot for trafficking.

Fentanyl seizures declined in the border areas of Texas and New Mexico but grew in California and Arizona, according to the Wilson Center in an August report. The Wilson Center was chartered by Congress, and it provides nonpartisan counsel and insights on global affairs to policymakers through deep research, impartial analysis and independent scholarship.

The Wilson Center said, according to the CBP, 90% of the fentanyl seizures happen at official border crossings.

Noem has shared concerns about cartels smuggling drugs and using in her words “the open border” to their advantage.

Jason Owens, the chief of the U.S. border patrol, said in a Sept. 24 post on X (formerly Twitter), “Smugglers are illegally crossing these big groups for financial gain & using them as a distraction to run deadly narcotics and violent criminals into the U.S.”

Research and reports state that drug cartels have taken advantage of migrants by forcing them to pay fees for assistance to cross the border, or in some cases, to transport drugs.

Some federal lawmakers have said the 2023 border situation allows drug cartels to further exploit migrants.

But there is also a link between stricter enforcement and policies on border crossings and immigration and exploitation of migrants by cartels. The Human Trafficking Institute said stricter immigration policies can encourage migrants to turn to smuggling and other means as way to cross the border.

Cartels using migrants for drug smuggling is not new.

There is research and reporting that dates back to at least 2015 about how drug cartels were exploiting migrants. A 2009 research report to The Bush School of Government and Public Service Texas A&M University discussed immigration, drug trafficking and related topics.

How most drugs enter the U.S.

Still, reports from the DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other research indicate that illegal drug smuggling through port entries is the common way to transport illegal drugs.

“Land transportation via the interstate system is the most predominant method of transporting illicit opioids, with personally-owned vehicles (POVs), rental vehicles, and trucks/tractor trailers
identified as the most commonly used modes of transport. POVs are often retrofitted with
concealed compartments that are used by DTOs to hide heroin, fentanyl, bulk currency, and other contraband,” the DEA said.

Research and reports show ports of entry are sites for illegal drug smuggling. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a Sept. 19 report illegal drug activity is one where “at our nation’s physical border and ports of entry, smuggling cells attempt to exploit America’s legitimate trade, travel, and transportation systems.”

The border between the U.S. and Mexico is 1,933 miles long; that’s more than six times longer than South Dakota is from the east to the west.

In addition to using ports of entry and other methods, Mexican cartels rely on traditional drug smuggling methods, such as the use of backpackers and couriers, when smuggling drugs across remote areas of the border with Mexico, according to the DEA.

The expansive border means there are remote areas to cross, or try and cross, with illegal drugs.

Although migrants may be smuggling some of the illegal drugs coming across the border from Mexico, U.S. citizens are also heavily involved in the trafficking.

The Cato Institute said, “Fentanyl is primarily trafficked by U.S. citizens,” in comparison to drugs being smuggled by illegal immigrants.

Through August of fiscal year 2023, CBP has seized more than 25,500 pounds of fentanyl.

A review of CBP news releases on drug seizures from May through August shows high involvement from U.S. citizens. And NPR and other organizations have also reviewed and analyzed drug seizures from this year and 2022 which show U.S. citizens are heavily involved in drug smuggling across the border with Mexico.

Since Noem and the National Guard are in Texas, KELOLAND looked at several examples from Texas incidents.

A May 5 news release cited the arrest of two U.S. citizens on drug charges at the Ysleta, Texas, point of entry. A May 25 news release cited the arrest of a 25-year-old U.S. citizen on drug charges at the Marcelino Serna port of entry. It also cites two Mexican citizens were arrested on drug charges in two separate incidents while crossing in vehicle lanes.

From Sept. 3-5, three U.S. citizens were arrested in three separate incidents for drugs at the Paso Del Norte port of entry in Texas. On Sept. 8 and Sept. 14, one Mexican citizen was arrested in two separate drug incidents at Paso Del Norte.

Why is a South Dakota trade delegation in Mexico?

South Dakota exports products, mainly agriculture-related products, to Mexico.

Lt. Governor Larry Rhoden and Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DANR) Secretary Hunter Roberts are in Mexico this week with meet with industry and government officials.

This isn’t the first time a South Dakota delegation has visited Mexico to discuss trade. In 2018, a group of farmers visited Mexico on a trade trip. The trip was organized by South Dakota Soybean Association.

The Observatory of Economic Complexity said from May 2022 to May 2023, Mexico was the fastest growing export destination for South Dakota. Exports to Mexico grew by nearly $14 million or 36%.

The state’s total trade with Mexico grew by 15% from 2021 to 2022, according to a trade document from Mexico and South Dakota.

Meat and meat products were the largest exports to Mexico in 2022.

Distillers grain, pork, beef, soybeans and pork and beef products are the state’s highest value exports.

The value of export trade with Mexico has been steady during the past several years.

Exports to Mexico from South Dakota had a total value of $394 million in 2015, according to the Wilson Center.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative said export trade to Mexico was valued at $339 million in 2018. In 2019, that figure was about $316 million, according to the International Trade Administration.