A disturbing new trend of smuggling has been on the rise since 2009, the Department of Homeland Security said.
Teenagers and young adults, some as young as 10 years old, are being recruited by Mexican drug cartels to carry illegal drugs across the border.
The smuggling, which generally consists of packages of marijuana being taped to the teenagers, has seen a dramatic increase since its initial discovery three years ago. Since then, 562 teens ranging from ages 10 to 18-years-old, have been arrested at the border for smuggling.
Though the practice of carrying narcotics across the border on one’s person is not a new technique, the apprehension rate saw a growth of 811 percent in 2009, according to a Border Patrol press release.
Smuggling recruiters are targeting teenagers, and promising them quick money in exchange for carrying the drugs. The teens are often assured that, due to their age, there is little risk if they are caught, and the idea of a couple hundred dollars is a tempting proposal.
Recruiters are believed to operate in malls and around schools, targeting youth with U.S. passports, and those they believe can be swayed with the promise of quick money.
In reality, those caught smuggling narcotics can face fines up to $5,000 dollars and federal imprisonment for up to 10 years if over the age of 18, or a likely year of labor at a detention youth camp for juveniles.
In all cases, the arrests are filed on the individual’s permanent record. A federal smuggling charge can bar one from certain careers, and weakens one’s ability to find work in other fields.
In March of 2009, three 14-year-old boys were caught with more than 11 pounds of marijuana attempting to cross the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Since then, Homeland Security officials said the age of teen smugglers has largely been in the 17-18 year old range.
While marijuana is the most prominent narcotic smuggled, harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and illegal prescription medication have also been recovered from arrested teen smugglers.
Hoping to combat this practice, the Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security Investigations branch have held outreach assemblies at South San Diego schools.
A series of assemblies was held on March 1 at Sweetwater High School. More assemblies are planned for South County schools later this month.
Using testimonies from apprehended teen smugglers and outlines highlighting the potential penalties for smuggling, Border Patrol and Homeland Security agents appeal to students, and insist the crime is not worth the potential repercussions.
Border Patrol agent Shae Thomas, who had performed previous outreach events at Sweetwater Union High School District schools, was met with applause and welcoming shouts from the students during her portion of the presentation.
Agent Thomas reminded students that the Border Patrol was specially trained in targeting individuals and spotting suspicious behavior at ports of entry.
"I will catch you," she said.
Department of Homeland Security Investigations Special Agents Nicole Caughey and Brendon Nordhoff spent their portions of the assembly explaining the far reaching impact of smuggling on the United States and Mexico.
They explained that smuggling directly funds the Mexican drug cartels, the Special Agents used graphic images to illustrate the recent cartel violence in Mexico, as well as several slides showcasing the vast weapons arsenals the cartels employ.
Further illustrating the dangers of involvement with the drug cartels, Special Agent Caughey cited a triple murder of American youth in May 2009.
Brianna Hernandez Aguilera, 19, Carmen Jimenez Ramos Chavez, 20, and Oscar Jorge Garcia Cota, 23, all graduates of South Bay schools, were found murdered in eastern Tijuana following a night spent partying in the border city.
One was believed to have connections to Mexican drug cartels, while toxicology reports found cocaine in the system of Hernandez. A Mexican national, Luis Antonio Games, Jr. 21, was also among the slain.
Special Agent Caughey explained that while students may believe the money made smuggling could help improve their lives or the lives of their families, she insisted “The only people you help when you smuggle are the drug cartels.”
Ending the program, Deputy Special Agent Joe Garcia, a 28-year federal law enforcement veteran and former undercover agent, reminded students that they were outmatched on either side of the issue: on one hand involving themselves with hardened criminals, and on the other with highly trained Border Patrol agents and Homeland Security Special Agents.
He encouraged students to make good life decisions and seek the counsel of positive influences in their lives. Explaining the point of the program, Special Agent Garcia said “We’re not here today to scare you. We’re here because this is a positive part of our job. We want to empower you all to make good life decisions.”
Concerned parents or those with information regarding cartel recruiters or their location of operation are encouraged to call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE to report incidents or request further information on the subject.