Air cargo planes sit at a DHL air shipping hub in Wilmington, Ohio.

Air cargo planes sit at a DHL air shipping hub in Wilmington, Ohio. AP file photo

Federal Government Crackdown to Cause Major Disruptions for International Shipping in 2021

Few countries are in compliance with an opioids-related mandate set to take effect Jan. 1 as lawmakers criticize Trump administration for "falling down on the job."

The U.S. Postal Service and other federal agencies are warning of widespread disruptions to international package delivery to start the new year due to much of the world failing to comply with U.S. requirements aimed at rooting out illicit trafficking. 

More than 180 countries and territories are not in compliance with the 2018 Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, the full force of which is set to go into effect on Jan. 1. Congress passed the measure with overwhelming bipartisan support and President Trump signed it into law as the opioid epidemic was ravaging communities through the country. The crisis was reaching a new inflection point as international traffickers—primarily from China—were increasingly using the U.S. Postal Service to send synthetic opioids like fentanyl to American customers.

“Advanced electronic data,” or AED, provide USPS and Customs and Border Protection with information about the contents of international packages before they reach the United States. A requirement for the data has long been imposed on international packages coming into the country through private carriers like FedEx and UPS, but the mandate will apply across the board to international packages arriving through USPS starting in 2021 under the 2018 law’s timeline.

The STOP Act set benchmarks for USPS to receive AED with more international packages leading up to the Jan. 1, 2021, deadline to receive all such shipments with the added information. Dozens of nations are now in compliance with that requirement, but most are not. Officials at USPS, Customs and Border Protection and the State Department all told lawmakers this month the United States will begin rejecting international packages without AED in the new year.

"It is likely that during 2021 mail flows from some countries will be disrupted because they are not able to comply with the AED requirements in the STOP Act," Green recently told a panel of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

Some nations will receive a waiver, according to Robert Cintron, vice president for logistics at USPS, but U.S. officials have stressed that is temporary in nature and contingent on those countries making strides toward AED compliance. Nations with low package volume to the United States, considered low risk and that lack basic technologies were provided the waiver—a process made easier by the end-of-year COVID-19 relief package—but those countries represent just 10%-15% of out-of-compliance volume. 

Lawmakers faulted the Trump administration for its multiagency failure in ensuring a smoother transition to the AED requirement. CBP has yet to issue regulations for what happens to mail coming from countries that do not provide the data, blowing past a 2019 deadline. Thomas Overacker, CBP’s executive director of cargo and conveyance security, said there was no excuse for the failure, but noted CBP is working with the Office of Management and Budget to get the regulations out soon. Even without them, he said, CBP can "proceed with implementing the act.” 

"There is no good solution thanks to the reality that you don’t have the regulation in effect," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who authored the legislation.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., warned U.S. mailers can now expect retaliatory actions from foreign posts that will look to reject international packages with American origins.

"The administration has fallen down on the job in implementing the act," Carper said. "It's hard for me to understand why we aren't in a better place than we are right now."

Overacker and Cintron said their agencies have met regularly to ensure they are prepared for the STOP Act's implementation.  

"Absent any alternatives, USPS will refuse [packages] at ports of entry," Cintron said. "Anything that does not have AED we would return back to ground handler."

Unintended Consequences

While the law has yet to be fully implemented, there are some signs its passage has begun effecting its intended results. Compared to 2018, seizures of synthetic opioids dropped by 71% and 93% in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The law appears to be having unintended consequences as well, however. About 97% of interdictions now take place in the domestic mail stream, and officials said they are increasingly finding substances like fentanyl at the southwest border. 

“It’s like a balloon,” Cintron said. “You squeeze it in one end and it just comes out the other end.” 

Cintron stressed the importance of all federal agencies sharing information among themselves to triangulate the latest smuggling trends. Overacker added that CBP is working to “harden” the U.S.-Mexico border, including by adding screening equipment, canine teams and on-the-ground scientists with expertise in chemical analysis. 

CBP is responsible for inspecting the packages at USPS’ international mail facilities, though investigations can involve Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Agency, USPS’ Postal Inspection Service and other federal offices. The STOP Act required the State Department to negotiate international agreements that require foreign countries to provide AED before sending packages. USPS, CBP and other agencies are collaborating to develop new technology to help customs officers better detect illicit drugs in the mail.

Prior to the STOP Act, CBP relied primarily on canine teams to find packages containing illicit drugs. Agency officials have said front-line personnel also use analytics based on synthesized information gathered throughout the government’s law enforcement community to better identify what to look for when searching for illegal materials. That is coupled with and updated by CBP’s own observations in the field, as officers adjust to the ever-changing practices adopted by drug traffickers. 

AED gives customs officers insight into who is sending the packages and allows them to flag questionable content lists based on their knowledge of how the traffickers operate. CBP’s National Targeting Center combs through the data on a daily basis and provides reports back to “advanced targeting teams” in the field, which then further analyze the information and filter it through the trends they see locally to help screeners identify packages for additional scrutiny.

Until recently, USPS was not providing any advanced data at all. At international mail facilities, therefore, CBP officers have been operating on a more manual basis. The agency asks the Postal Service to segregate mail originating from “countries of interest” and then begins what officials have described as a “manpower-intensive” process, including hand-selecting questionable packages and putting them through x-rays and other technologies frontline personnel employ.