FORT BLISS, Texas (Border Report) – A military unit that helps federal agencies track transnational criminal organizations on Wednesday swore in a new leader.

Maj. Gen. Matthew D. Smith takes over command of Joint Task Force North from Maj. Gen. Randall V. Simmons Jr. The unit assists Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice agencies with personnel and intelligence engaged in narcotics interdiction and other national security threats.

At a change-of-command ceremony at the post, Smith pledged continued cooperation with partner agencies. Simmons, meantime, spoke to Border Report about the evolving role of a military unit that supplies border law-enforcement agencies with boots on the ground and shares intelligence with the Mexican army and navy.

“Our mission has changed quite a bit over the past couple of years. Historically, we’ve been focused on supporting law-enforcement partners just on the Southwest border. But for the last year or so we’ve worked with others in Mexico in addition to our (U.S.) federal partners,” Simmons said.

JTF-North supervises military units from 20 states and has seen thousands of National Guard troops rotate through the area in the past two years. The soldiers do a lot of fieldwork with the Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. National Guard members assigned to the unit have been credited with assisting in drug seizures and the rescue of migrants in danger of drowning on the Rio Grande.

But in the age of fentanyl, their assistance to agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration plays a key role, too.

“Fentanyl is something that is very scary,” Simmons said. “These drugs are not being made in Food and Drug Administration-approved labs, they’re being made in offices, garages, shanties all over Mexico, and even the borderlands in the United States.”

International security experts have told Border Report two transnational criminal organizations — the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa cartel — control most of the fentanyl manufacturing in Mexico, but several smaller groups also are involved in trafficking the synthetic opioid to the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 107,000 drug overdose deaths in the 12-month period ending on January 2021. Sixty-five percent of those fatalities involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which is deadly at 2-milligram doses and up.

Task force leaders declined to discuss the specifics of JTF-North’s work.