Trump’s Wile E. Coyote Approach to Border Security

Smuggling experts say the president needs to listen to the people who understand the complexities of security and drug policy.

 Donald Trump attends the Bastille Day parade in Paris.
Donald Trump attends the Bastille Day parade in Paris.  (Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters)

The president of the United States wants a see-through wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, in part because he’s worried about people getting hit in the head by any bags of drugs that might be hurled over the divide.

“As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them—they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.”

To which at least one border security expert responds: “Over a 2,000 mile border, I think you’d have a higher chance of getting hit by a meteorite than a bag of drugs.” That’s Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who focuses on drug policies and the border. When I talked to Tree this morning, he was amused and astonished by the president’s remarks.

“The most important thing is, Donald Trump just admitted that he’s worried about people throwing drugs over a wall that’s designed to stop drugs!” Tree said. “Wile E. Coyote needs to take this wall back to Acme, because the road runner just owned him.”

Well, Trump did acknowledge he sounded crazy, didn’t he?

The thing is, the suggestion of a transparent wall isn’t Trump’s alone. Top officials from the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have advocated for a design that allows agents to see through portions of the divide.

“Not just for what the president describes as bags being thrown over, but just as important is being able to get a view of the threat that is actually staging on the other side of the fence and is preparing to take on some kind of breaching effort,” says David Aguilar, the former deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection who now works as a consultant for Global Security and Innovative Strategies. “The reality of the situation is that a see-through capability is critically important—but what is even more vital is situational awareness.”

And situational awareness doesn’t just come from being able to peek through slats in a wall, he says, though he emphasizes that “the president is right, the transparency is important.” Modern border security also requires surveillance towers, tethered drones, cameras, sensors, and other technology. “It is a combination of all of those things,” Aguilar told me. “Technology cannot be everywhere all the time.”

Trump may have gotten a bit confused about the threat of soaring bags of drugs. (“It’s not easy to describe,” Aguilar says.) What the president may have been thinking of, Aguilar suggests, is the problem with people throwing rocks or concrete blocks over the wall—sometimes a tactic used by spotters to divert attention, he told me. “Chucking things that can hurt our agents,” Aguilar says. “There have been very, very, very serious injuries with cement blocks being thrown.” Such injuries are rare now that there are more protections in place at the border, he says, but assaults against agents have climbed in recent months. CBP could not immediately provide data about how many agents have been struck or injured by objects thrown over the border.

From a drug-policy perspective, Tree says, the president’s ideas are dangerously misguided. “The idea that this wall will stop a few migrants carrying a couple of kilos compared with the tons that come through the tunnels?” he said. “Stopping a couple of kilos is really ridiculous. The vast majority of illegal drugs come through legal checkpoints. The wall will do nothing to stop that.”

Tree also worries that the president’s approach will inspire drug traffickers to cut their heroin supplies with even more fentanyl, a synthetic version of the drug that’s much stronger than heroin. Anticipating a potential dip in the heroin supply, he says, they’re more likely to reach for fentanyl as a way to stretch profits.

“People will drop like flies in this country,” Tree says. “It illustrates how little thought the president has actually given to any of these problems. He won’t take any advice. He won’t talk to anyone who won’t agree with him. That’s very dangerous.”

“Well, look,” says Aguilar, the former CBP leader, “There’s no doubt that the president’s approach to the border has brought attention to it. Now there’s attention, and then there’s attention. From an enforcement perspective, the attention that has been brought is an absolutely a positive thing. Now the question needs to be asked: What do you need?”