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Written testimony of CBP Commissioner R.Gil Kerlikowske for a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs field hearing titled “Border Security and America’s Heroin Epidemic: The Impact of the Trafficking and Abuse of Heroin and Prescription Opioids in Wisconsin”

Release Date: April 15, 2016

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Good morning, Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Carper, and distinguished Members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to appear today in Wisconsin to discuss the role of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in combating the flow of dangerous drugs into the United States.

The use and availability of heroin and other illegal opioids, as well as the nonmedical use of prescription opioids in the United States, have been increasing at an alarming rate. The situation is one of the most important, complex, and difficult challenges our Nation faces today. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2002 and 2014, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths quintupled, and more than 10,500people died in 2014.

There is no single entity, nor a single solution, that can address this problem. Tackling this complex threat involves a united, comprehensive strategy and aggressive approach by multiple entities – from law enforcement, science, medicine, education, social work, and the public health sector – across all levels of government. While continued efforts to interdict heroin and other drugs at the border are a key aspect of addressing this crisis, interdictions, arrests and convictions alone cannot mitigate the far-reaching effects of nonmedical prescription opioid and heroin use. We need to focus on prevention and treatment, and identify the characteristics of developing cases of opioid use disorder before they escalate. We must also concentrate on deterring opioid trafficking by transnational criminal organizations (TCO).

To do this effectively, we must better integrate our efforts, share information, and partner with federal, state, local and tribal communities as well as the private sector. In 2015, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Heroin Response Strategy,1 which fosters a collaborative partnership between public health and law enforcement entities. The strategy seeks a comprehensive response to this complex epidemic by addressing the broad range of efforts required – on the international, national, and local levels – to reduce the use, distribution, and trafficking of this dangerous substance.

As America’s unified border agency, CBP has a critical role in the efforts to keep dangerous drugs like heroin and other opioids out of the hands of the American public. Interdicting drugs at and in between our ports of entry (POE), and combating TCOs, are key components of our multi-layered, risk-based approach to enhance the security of our borders. This layered approach to security reduces our reliance on any single point or program, and extends our zone of security outward, ensuring that our physical border is not the first or last line of defense, but one of many.

Secretary Johnson’s Unity of Effort initiative has put in place new and strengthened management processes to enable more effective, integrated DHS component operations to address TCOs, drug-trafficking, and other cross-border threats. In addition, DHS-wide border and maritime security activities are guided by the new Southern Border and Approaches Campaign Plan and complement the Administration’s National Drug Control Strategy, and the National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy. Aimed at leveraging the range of unique Department roles, responsibilities, and capabilities, the Campaign enhances our ability to work together in a more unified way to address these comprehensive threats. In support of this new Campaign, on November 20, 2014, the Secretary announced the creation of three new joint task forces (JTF) to coordinate the efforts of the combined resources of DHS component agencies. Joint Task Force-East is responsible for the maritime approaches to the United States across the southeast, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean. Joint Task Force-West (JTF-W) is responsible for the Southwest land border from Texas to California. And, supporting the work of the other two task forces is a standing Joint Task Force for Investigations (JTF-I). These three JTFs reached full operational capability on July 30, 2015.


Interdictions and Trends

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, CBP officers and agents seized 3.3 million pounds of drugs across the country, representing a four percent increase from FY 2014 in overall nationwide seizure events, but a six percent decrease in drug seizures by weight. Additionally, heroin total seizure amounts for FY 2015 increased 23 percent to more than 6,000 pounds. CBP seizures of synthetically made opioids like fentanyl, while relatively small compared to heroin, have also significantly increased from 2.4 pounds in FY 2013, to 8.2 pounds seized in FY 2014, to 197.8 pounds seized in FY 2015. These figures demonstrate the continued effectiveness of CBP’s detection and interdiction abilities, but also attest to the significant increase in heroin production in Mexico.2

Mexican manufacturers and traffickers continue to be major suppliers of heroin to the United States. Heroin is most commonly brought to the United States across the Southwest land border3 or transported by couriers on commercial airlines.4 With regards to fentanyl, the most significant source countries are Mexico and China. Fentanyl is smuggled into the United States across the Southwest border, and also shipped to a variety of locations within the United States via mail services.

The reach and influence of Mexican cartels, notably the Sinaloa, Gulf, and Jalisco New Generation Cartels, stretch across and beyond the Southwest border, operating through loose business ties with smaller organizations in communities across the United States. The threat of TCOs is dynamic; rival organizations are constantly vying for control, and as U.S. and Mexican anti-drug efforts disrupt criminal networks, new groups arise and form new alliances.

2 “Drug Trafficking Across the Southwest Border and Oversight of US Counterdrug Assistance to Mexico”, Caucus on International Narcotics Control, United States Senate, November 17, 2015, Statement of Michael P. Botticelli, Director, ONDCP.
3 Heroin intercepted at the Southwest land border is most often from Mexico, but sometimes from South America.
4 Heroin intercepted in the international commercial air travel environment is from South America, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia.


CBP Resources and Capabilities to Counter Drug Trafficking Organizations

CBP, responsible for America’s frontline border security, has a significant role in the Nation’s efforts to combat the cross-border criminal activity of cartels and other drug trafficking organizations. In the past decade, DHS has deployed more resources, technology, and tactical infrastructure for securing our borders than at any other time in history. Technology and detection capabilities significantly contribute to identifying and deterring the entry of potentially dangerous people and contraband.

At Our Nation’s Ports of Entry

At POEs, the Office of Field Operations (OFO) utilizes technology, such as non-intrusive inspection (NII) x-ray and gamma ray imaging systems, and canine teams to detect the illegal transit of drugs hidden on people, in cargo containers and in other conveyances. Since September 11, 2001, NII technology has been a cornerstone of the CBP multi-layered enforcement strategy. As of October 15, 2015, 315 Large-Scale (LS) NII systems are deployed to, and in between, our POEs. In FY 2015, LS-NII systems were used to conduct more than 7.2 million examinations resulting in more than 2,400 seizures and more than 390,000 pounds of seized drugs and more than $4 million in U.S. currency.

Smugglers use varying and innovative tactics to conceal heroin. For example, on January 21, 2016, CBP officers at the Port of Nogales, in Arizona, discovered almost 29 pounds of heroin concealed within a hidden compartment of a privately owned vehicle. And, on July 18, 2015, CBP officers at the Port of Hidalgo, in Texas, seized 151 pounds of heroin concealed within the back wall of a commercial bus. While vehicles may be a popular conveyance for smuggling, DTOs also move heroin in smaller quantities to try to evade detection. Just recently, CBP officers working at the express consignment facility in Cincinnati intercepted a package manifested as “candy.” The package, which contained a tub of chocolate icing, showed some irregularities during an x-ray examination. After conducting a physical inspection, CBP officers determined that smugglers had placed a sealed bag of approximately two and a half pounds of heroin in the chocolate. And, on March 12, 2016, CBP officers at the Orlando International Airport discovered six pounds of heroin concealed in the lining of a traveler’s backpack.

OFO deploys 478 specialized detection canine teams throughout the nation, trained to detect drugs and concealed humans. The majority of the canine teams are concentrated in four field offices along the Southwest border. Canine operations are an invaluable component of CBP’s counternarcotic operations at POEs. For example, on December 17, 2015, at the DeConcini POE, in Nogales, Arizona, a canine team conducting post-primary inspections resulted in the referral of a 31-year-old Phoenix woman for a further search of her Chrysler sedan. Officers then discovered nearly 44 pounds of heroin, valued at nearly $617,000, hidden within the rocker panels. During FY 2015, OFO canine teams were responsible for the seizure of 603,283 pounds of drugs, $34,991,253 in seized property, and $39,323,455 in currency.

Responding to the upsurge in heroin use across the Nation, and increased seizures at POEs, in October 2015, CBP completed Phase 1 of a pilot program to train and equip CBP officers with Naloxone, a potentially life-saving drug for the treatment of opioid overdoses. During Phase I, CBP officers, at seven participating POEs5 received training in recognizing the signs and symptoms of an overdose, administering Naloxone, and were certified as CPR instructors. Over the next few months, CBP will initiate Phase 2 of the Naloxone Initiative Pilot Program, expanding the pilot to an additional eight POEs.6 CBP was the first federal law enforcement agency to implement such a program.

Along the Southwest Border

Along the Southwest border, between the POEs, CBP has deployed capable resources to increase our situational awareness, identify changes in the border environment, and rapidly respond, as appropriate, to emerging threats and areas of increasing risk or illegal cross-border activity. The use of tactical infrastructure and advanced surveillance and detection technology in the border environment is an invaluable force multiplier to increase situational awareness.

For example, CBP’s Tactical Aerostats and Re-locatable Towers program, originally part of the Department of Defense (DoD) Reuse program, uses a mix of aerostats, towers, and electro-optical/infra-red cameras, to provide U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) with increased situational awareness through an advanced surveillance capability over a wide area. This capability has proven to be a vital asset in increasing CBP’s ability to detect, identify, classify, and track activity. As of December 2015, USBP agents seized 122 tons of narcotics with the assistance of existing aerostats and towers.

In addition to the hundreds of canine teams OFO deploys to the POEs, the USBP Canine Program deploys over 808 specialized detection canine teams — trained to detect narcotics and concealed humans — throughout the nation. The majority of the canine teams are concentrated in the nine Sectors along the Southwest border. During FY 2015 USBP canine teams were responsible for the seizure of 432,761 pounds of narcotics, $3,073,313 in currency, and 39,942 human apprehensions. Just last month, canine teams in the San Diego Sector aided in the detection and seizure of narcotics valued at more than $1.2 million, including 14.35 pounds of heroin valued at $172,200, on a single day.

Through the deployment of these complementary and effective resources, CBP gains more coverage and situational awareness of surveillance gaps, and increases its ability to adapt to changing conditions to effectively detect, identify, classify, track, and interdict potential threats along the borders.

From the Air and the Sea

CBP’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO) is an essential component of a successful integrated strategy for border security, as well as a significant contributor to the national security and emergency response efforts of various Federal, state, tribal, and local agencies. AMO operates aerial and marine assets – including unmanned aircraft systems and strategic and tactical aerostats – providing critical surveillance coverage and domain awareness for counternarcotic efforts on the ground, in the air, and at sea. Nationally, AMO contributed to the seizure of 225 pounds of heroin in FY 2013; 724 pounds in FY 2014; and 627 pounds in FY 2015.

In the maritime domain, AMO employs high speed Coastal Interceptor Vessels that are specifically designed and engineered with the speed, maneuverability, integrity and endurance to intercept and engage a variety of suspect non-compliant vessels in offshore waters, as well as the Great Lakes on the Northern border.

AMO P-3 Orion Aircraft (P-3s) have also been an integral part of the successful counternarcotic missions operating in coordination with Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S). The P-3s patrol in a 42 million-square mile area known as the Source and Transit Zone, which includes more than 41 nations, the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and seaboard approaches to the United States. In Fiscal Year 2015, AMO’s P-3 aircrews contributed to 198 seizure, disruption, or interdiction events in the transit zone, resulting in the interdiction of 213,000 pounds of cocaine.

In addition, DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is working with CBP to develop, test, and pilot new technology for securing and scanning cargo, improving surveillance of the Southwest border, and enhancing detection capabilities for radar-evading aircraft. S&T is also pursuing and fielding new technology to monitor storm drains, detect tunnels, track low-flying aircraft, monitor ports, and enhance current mobile/fixed radar and camera surveillance systems to increase border security. Recently, S&T-developed technology was put into operational use at the US-Mexican Border. These technologies included a new general aviation aircraft scanner in Laredo, TX, and a new Brownsville-Matamoros Rail Non-Intrusive Inspection Microwave Data Transmission System.

5 Phase 1 Naloxone Pilot Program POEs include El Paso; Laredo; Fort Lauderdale International Airport; John K. Kennedy International Airport; San Luis: San Ysidro; and Seattle/Blaine.
6 Phase 2 Naloxone Pilot Program POEs include Miami Int’l/Miami Seaport; Boston; Buffalo; Detroit; Newark; Chicago; Houston Int’l/Houston Seaport; and Dallas.


Intelligence and Information Sharing

Criminal intelligence sharing is a key component of countering drug-trafficking along the Southwest and Northern borders at and in between the POEs. CBP contributes to several initiatives to improve the combined intelligence capabilities of Federal, state, local, tribal, and international partners.

CBP hosts monthly briefings/teleconferences with Federal, state and local partners regarding the current state of the border – the Northern border and Southwest border – in order to monitor emerging trends and threats and provide a cross-component, multi-agency venue for discussing trends and threats. The monthly briefings focus on drugs, weapons, and currency interdictions and alien apprehensions both at and between the POEs. These briefings/teleconferences currently include participants from: the Government of Canada; the Government of Mexico; JTF-W; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); U.S. Coast Guard (USCG); Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); U.S. Northern Command; Joint Interagency Task Force-South; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF);; U.S. Attorneys’ Offices; Naval Investigative Command; State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers; and other international, Federal, state, and local law enforcement as appropriate.

Substantive and timely information sharing is critical in targeting and interdicting individuals that move drugs and illicit merchandise from the POEs to their destinations throughout the United States and Mexico. CBP contributes to the whole-of-government effort to combat drug-related threats by sharing critical information on travelers and cargo with investigative and intelligence partner agencies to identify and disrupt sophisticated routes and networks. Recognizing the need for open and sustainable channels to share information with our law enforcement and intelligence partners, CBP co-locates interagency personnel at its National Targeting Center (NTC) to support efforts to combat drug and contraband smuggling by integrating real-time tactical intelligence into CBP targeting efforts and enforcement actions. This whole-of-government counter network approach has resulted in TCOs being identified and dismantled, and their smuggling routes shut down. An example of this successful collaboration can be seen in the aggressive targeting of heroin transiting, or destined for, the United States. In FY 2015, CBP efforts at the NTC, in conjunction with increased cooperation from foreign and domestic law enforcement partners, resulted in 40 seizures of heroin and several arrests.

Physical evidence gathering and forensic analysis is also valuable to the information sharing effort. Improved technology and enhanced capabilities have also expanded the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information between law enforcement partners working to dismantle DTO networks. For example, CBP’s Laboratories and Scientific Services Directorate (LSSD) uses advanced techniques to provide qualitative identification and quantitative determination as well as pollen analysis of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine to assist with identifying potential drug smuggling routes. In November 2014, CBP launched a new program that involves the close collaboration of CBP chemists in the laboratories and CBP officers on the frontlines. The purpose of the program is to rapidly identify questionable materials through presumptive chemical testing, while simultaneously allowing for the quick release of non-offending, detained importations. The key to the success of the program is the rapid turnaround time of presumptive chemical testing of questionable materials. Through the end of 2015, over 7,300 items were examined. During this period, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI) executed a significant number of controlled deliveries based on CBP’s presumptive findings. The most noteworthy takedown resulted in the seizure of $2.5 million in cash, tens of millions of dollars in assets, and 14 indictments.

CBP exchanges information with our partners within the Government of Mexico. This information sharing, facilitated by the CBP Attaché office in Mexico, has allowed for an unprecedented exchange of real-time information through deployments of personnel between our countries. Today, Mexican Federal Police personnel sit with our personnel in Tucson, Arizona, and Laredo, Texas, where they assist us with targeting criminal activity through the sharing of Mexican criminal history database information. Likewise, CBP personnel are assigned to Mexico City under the Joint Security Program where we exchange alerts on suspicious TCO movements through the monitoring of our Advance Passenger Information System. This information sharing has also led to numerous seizures and cases within Mexico that serve to disrupt the activities of TCOs throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Enhancing counternarcotic operations in the air and maritime environments, AMO’s Air and Marine Operations Center (AMOC), a state-of-the-art law enforcement radar surveillance center, integrates data from multiple sensor sources to provide real-time information on suspect targets to responders at the Federal, state, and local levels. AMOC’s capabilities are enhanced by the continued integration of DHS and other Federal and Mexican personnel to increase efforts to identify, interdict, and investigate suspected drug trafficking in the air and maritime domains.

Operational Coordination

A whole-of-government approach that leverages interagency and international partnerships as a force multiplier has been and will continue to be the most effective way to keep our border secure.

Providing critical capabilities toward the whole-of-government approach, CBP works extensively with our Federal, state, local, tribal, and international partners to address drug trafficking and other transnational threats at POEs and along the Southwest border, Northern border, and coastal approaches. Our security efforts are enhanced through special joint operations and task forces conducted under the auspices of multi-agency enforcement teams. These teams are composed of representatives from international and U.S. Federal law enforcement agencies who work together with state, local, and tribal agencies to target drug and transnational criminal activity, including investigations involving national security and organized crime.

Under the Secretary’s Unity of Effort initiative and with the three new DHS JTFs, CBP is enhancing our collaboration with other DHS components – specifically ICE and USCG – to leverage the unique resources, authorities, and capabilities of each agency to more effectively and efficiently execute our border security missions against TCOs, drug-trafficking and other threats and challenges. JTF operations also increase information sharing with Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, improve border-wide criminal intelligence-led interdiction operations, and address transnational threats.

For example, the JTF-W’s integrated intelligence, interdiction, and investigation efforts in the South Texas Corridor recently led to coordinated enforcement actions against a TCO, significantly disrupting the organization’s ability to smuggle their commodity. Under Operation Fusion One-Five, multiple members of the Brewster Criminal Organization, to include the leader of the organization, were targeted and arrested. This investigation resulted in an additional 22 criminal arrests, the apprehension of 497 undocumented aliens, and the seizure of various types of narcotics. On August 10, 2015, members of the Brewster Organization appeared in federal court and received a cumulative sentence of 12.5 years for their roles in human smuggling. This was an HSI-led investigation with support from CBP assets.

CBP is a critical partner in the ICE-led Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BESTs), which are composed of Federal, state, local, and international law enforcement and intelligence stakeholders working together to counter TCOs and enhance border security. BESTs currently operate in 38 locations, including 14 along the Southwest border. In FY 2015, BESTs made more than 3,700 criminal arrests and 960 apprehensions for immigration violations; seized more than 276,000 pounds of drugs, 800 weapons, and $29 million in currency and monetary instruments; and federal prosecutors obtained more than 2,300 indictments and 1,800 convictions in BEST-investigated cases.

Other investigative agencies such as ICE-HSI, DEA, and FBI utilize AMO specific skills for air and marine relevant investigations to help identify and dismantle the organized flow of narcotics and TCOs. This leads to significant intelligence and seizures, and the critical information gained is often crucial to identifying TCO suspects, associates, and accomplices. The threat in the air and maritime domains requires specialized skills and tactics tailored to the specifics of each of those environments. In the maritime domain, AMO personnel routinely augment vessel crews from investigative partner agencies when air and marine investigative skills and technical expertise are needed for investigation or operation of these maritime assets.

Because DTOs are also known to use legitimate commercial modes of travel and transport to smuggle drugs and other illicit goods, CBP partners with the private sector to increase awareness and enforcement of international and domestic drug smuggling activities. In the air domain, AMO detects, identifies, investigates, and interdicts potential air threats to the United States, including general aviation (GA) aircraft involved in the aerial transit of contraband. The AMOC monitors complex airway traffic to identify illicit use of aircraft and those attempting to blend in with legitimate traffic. AMO, through its national SKY PRO initiative and in collaboration with ICE-HSI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, works to enhance law enforcement interactions with the GA community to increase awareness and intelligence on international and domestic smuggling activities. CBP also partners with the private sector to provide anti-drug smuggling training to air, sea, and land commercial transport companies (carriers) to assist CBP with stopping the flow of illicit drugs; to deter smugglers from using commercial carriers to smuggle drugs; and to provide carriers with the incentive to improve their security and their drug smuggling awareness. Participating carriers sign agreements stating that the carrier will exercise the highest degree of care and diligence in securing their facilities and conveyances, while CBP agrees to conduct site surveys, make recommendations, and provide training.

Heroin trafficking is a global problem, and CBP continues to work with our international partners to share information and leverage resources to combat this threat. Through the 21st Century Border Management Initiative, the U.S. Government and Government of Mexico (GOM) are working to strengthen our collaborative relationship and efforts to secure and facilitate the cross-border flows of people and cargo. CBP also has Border Patrol International Liaison Units (ILU) who facilitate cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement authorities as part of a multi-layered effort to target, disrupt, and dismantle criminal organizations. During FY 2015, USBP and GOM conducted multiple joint bi-national operations targeting TCOs. During these operations, and as a direct result of intelligence sharing with GOM, USBP and GOM were able to locate more than 30 illicit tunnels, and seize approximately 80,000 pounds of drugs.

AMOC’s coordinating efforts with the GOM and the deployment of shared surveillance technology has enabled the GOM to focus aviation and maritime enforcement efforts to better combat TCO operations in Northern Mexico and the contiguous U.S./Mexico border. For example, in January 2015, officers working at the AMOC detected a suspicious aircraft travelling north towards the United States. AMOC subsequently alerted GOM of the activity, and both the Mexican Federal Police and Air Force responded to investigate. The abandoned aircraft was located by Mexican officials a short time later, where 27 bags containing approximately 858 pounds methamphetamine, 174 pounds of cocaine, 174 pounds of white heroin, and 3.3 pounds of black tar heroin were discovered and seized. Also, AMO actively participates in Operation Martillo, an international counter illicit trafficking initiative whereby U.S. and regional partner nations’ military and law enforcement agencies patrol the air and sea environments in the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific on a year-round basis.

CBP’s Office of International Affairs (INA) Technical Assistance Division (INA/ITAD) conducts International Border Interdiction training, funded by Department of State, for various countries worldwide. These courses provide instruction on multiple aspects of border security, including targeting and risk management, interdiction, smuggling, search methodologies, analysis, canine enforcement, and narcotics detection identification. Within the last six months, INA/ITAD has conducted anti-smuggling training in heroin and opiate source countries such as Panama, Guatemala, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Afghanistan, Kenya, Cambodia, and Philippines.

Lastly, it is important to acknowledge the significant strides that Mexico has taken in recent years to address transnational organized crime generally, and drugs smuggling specifically. Overall, CBP’s relationship with its Mexican counterparts is stronger today than it has ever been. We receive information from Mexican authorities on a daily basis that helps us better target drugs smugglers at the border. Last October, I participated in a high level bilateral and interagency security cooperation meeting in Mexico City, where senior Mexican officials committed to working with the U.S. Government even more closely—including expanding efforts to combat heroin cultivation, production, and trafficking, and sharing more information on smuggling routes and networks, and crafting a binational action plan specifically focused on heroin smuggling. CBP will continue to work closely with our Mexican counterparts as we seek to identify, interdict, and take down the cartels.


CBP, through collaboration and coordination with our many Federal, state, local, tribal, international government, and other partners, has made great strides with regard to the integrity and security of our borders.

With continued support from Congress, CBP, in coordination with our partners, will continue to refine and further enhance the effectiveness of our detection and interdiction capabilities to combat transnational threats and the entry of heroin into the United States. We will continue to work with the Intelligence Community and our law enforcement partners to improve the efficiency of information sharing with relevant partners, to guide strategies, identify trafficking patterns and trends, develop tactics, and execute operations to address the challenges and threats posed by TCOs to the safety and security of the American public.

Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Carper, and distinguished Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to your questions.

Last Updated: 05/16/2024
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