Teenage drug mules: Cartels are tapping minors to smuggle meth, coke

US authorities have launched an outreach program in schools to combat the trend, warn students of dangers of smuggling

People crossing from Mexico to the United States at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, November 2013. It is the busiest port of entry in the United States, with some 90,000 people passing daily between Tijuana and San Diego.
John Moore/Getty Images

TIJUANA, Mexico — Cruz Marcelino Velazquez Acevedo almost made it. On Nov. 18, the 16-year-old told his dad he was headed to the gym. Instead, he got in line at the San Ysidro port of entry connecting Tijuana and San Diego. There U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents noticed a discrepancy in his B1/B2 visa, a document that allows him, like many other Mexicans each day, to enter the United States for tourism and pleasure. They pulled Cruz aside.

An average student who had no disciplinary record, Cruz had an easy smile and a neatly cropped crew cut. He was wearing a white hoodie, light blue jeans and sneakers and was carrying a juice bottle and a 1.5-liter water bottle. Both were filled with an amber-colored liquid.

One of the officers, suspicious of the bottles’ contents, seized one and poured a capful of the contents onto a counter. If it had been liquid methamphetamine, he thought, it would “instantly evaporate and leave behind crystals.”

But the liquid didn’t crystallize, and to the agent it smelled slightly fruity.

He handed the bottles back to Cruz, sending him to secondary inspection. There the teenager was asked again about the liquid.

“It’s apple juice,” he said. Then, to prove his point, he took a swig.

At the same time, a K-9 unit entered the room. The drug-sniffing dog immediately signaled that Cruz possessed an illegal substance. Agents handcuffed the teen, taking him to a security office, where an officer was patting down another suspect when Cruz arrived.

The teen grew agitated and started sweating profusely. He clutched his chest, screaming, “My heart! My heart!” in Spanish. The officer also made out the words “chemicals” and something about the boy’s sister and cousin.

Agents called 911 and handcuffed Cruz to a gurney. An ambulance arrived and paramedics pumped him full of anti-overdose medications and handcuffed his wrists to a stretcher. At the hospital, he tried to say his name and birth date but couldn’t. Thirty minutes later, he was dead.

A few weeks after his death, the San Diego County Medical Examiner ruled that Cruz died from acute methamphetamine intoxication. His “apple juice” was 90 percent meth. 

Teens recruited

People waiting to cross from Mexico into the United States at the San Ysidro port of entry, November 2013, in San Diego.
John Moore/Getty Images

Cruz’s story is increasingly common. From 2008 through 2013, 978 minors were caught by the CBP and charged with drug trafficking in the San Diego sector alone. (Borderwide statistics aren’t readily available.) That figure has leveled out but remains high compared with the rate of juvenile drug trafficking prior to 2008.

The latest statistics related to drugs seizures in San Diego show that marijuana busts dropped from 121 cases in 2010 to just 36 in 2012. But methamphetamine and cocaine seizures have both doubled.

To the east, in the Tucson, Ariz., sector, the number of juvenile apprehensions has also increased. In 2012, 244 minors reportedly faced drug-smuggling charges, double the number from 2011. Smugglers recruit minors because they are more easily swayed by promises of cash, cellphones and clothes. A typical cash payoff is $100 to $200. Minors are also sought out because they are more likely to recruit their friends and peers.

It’s not uncommon for high school students from San Diego County to cross into Mexico to party or visit family, particularly since the legal drinking age south of the border is 18. Agents say that kids are approached at the mall, in their neighborhoods, or at parties. Drug mules as young as 12 have been caught at the border.

An estimated 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians flow north from Tijuana each day. The volume of traffic makes catching smugglers difficult, Millie Jones, assistant special agent with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said, “The system isn’t set up to check every person. The average person wants to believe that kids are innocent and they’re not going to be the ones smuggling narcotics. The cartels see that.”

Often teens are assured that if they are caught smuggling drugs, they won’t face serious consequences because of their age. That is only partly true.

“By and large, there is a huge gap in sentencing for juveniles and adults,” said San Diego criminal defense lawyer Jeremy Warren, who has represented numerous juvenile offenders. “Juvenile sentencing is considered treatment and rehabilitation, and the punishments are generally much shorter, from probation to a few months in jail, at least in California.”

Adults, he said, can face years in prison for the same conduct. “It seems pretty arbitrary, but for the same crime — say, driving across the border in a car with a few pounds of cocaine inside — a 17-year-old might get (a sentence of) time served in juvenile court after a few weeks, while an 18-year-old might get three or four years in federal prison.”

For those 18 and up, punishment ranges from five to 20 years in prison, with fines that can top $5,000. The sentence depends on the type and quantity of drugs involved and whether the accused is tried in state or federal court. Many adult mules get three or four years, Warren said.

Penalties for mules under 18 range from probation to up to 15 months in a juvenile work camp.

Offenders convicted of aggravated felony crimes, like drug trafficking, who are noncitizens — adults and juveniles alike — are automatically deported for life after serving their sentences. According to statistics obtained from Immigration and Customs Enforcement via a Freedom of Information Act request, more than 65,500 immigrants were deported from 2007 to 2009 after aggravated felony convictions.

On one particular day in 2008, five teenagers were arrested in 24 hours, said Jones. She said it was a wake-up call. Some of the kids were apprehended at the same port of entry where Cruz drank liquid meth, others at Calexico to the east. “All of them had hard narcotics, cocaine or meth strapped to their bodies,” she said.

After seeing a 16 percent surge from 2008 to 2009 in the number of minors caught trying to smuggle drugs across the border, the DHS began an outreach program, organizing annual presentations in schools. The program now includes 38 elementary, middle and high schools in southern San Diego and features testimonies from agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS Special Investigations, the U.S. Attorney’s office, the CBP and the San Diego Police Department.

A new approach, in schools

A Customs and Border Patrol agent giving a Department of Homeland Security presentation at San Ysidro High School in San Diego, November 2013.
Erin Siegal McIntyre

Five days before Cruz died, hundreds of neatly uniformed students at San Ysidro High School filed into their auditorium for a special presentation. Like the district the school is in, the 2,500-member student body is almost entirely Latino. Most come from low-income homes. While only a few of the school’s students have been caught smuggling drugs, the principal, Hector Espinoza, said he welcomed preventive measures by the DHS.

One reason San Ysidro was chosen as the pilot school for the program was its proximity to the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, the San Ysidro port of entry. The Mexican border is just two miles south, and Tijuana’s urban sprawl is visible in the distance. Most students have family on both sides.

Outside officials were scattered around the edges of the San Ysidro High auditorium — law enforcement, ICE and CBP agents, even a prosecutor from the U.S attorney’s office. Some wore jeans and sneakers, others full uniform.

Officer Veronica Miranda, a CBP agent, stood off to the side, smiling as students filed in. She struck up a conversation with two freshmen boys in the front row. One asked what it felt like to get shot by a Taser. Like a fishhook getting ripped out of your skin, she said. A boy in red sneakers asked if he could use her pepper spray on his food. Nearby a student asked another official how to become a sniper.

The formal presentation started with a video featuring an 18-year-old speaking from jail. She was unnamed, and her face was blurred out. Her voice had a distinct Southern California lilt, similar to that of many San Ysidro High students. 

The young woman recounted her attempt to smuggle three pounds of opium from Mexico into the United States. She thought it would be easy. She wanted to buy clothes, she said, go out, spend money on her friends.

“It’s just a waste of your life being in here,” she warned. “It’s not worth it.”

Not revealed in the video was that the young woman was only incarcerated while her sentencing was pending. Ultimately, she got five years of probation.

The lights came up, and the visiting officials took the stage one at a time. Each spoke for 10 minutes or less. The approaches ranged from tough to friendly to almost confessional.

“One thing I hate is having to arrest a teenager,” said Miranda. “Have I done it? Yes. Once, twice, several times I’ve done it, because I have to do my job ... Do I like to? No.”

Two young officials took the stage. One, Shalene Thomas, started by joking with the other, Desiree Aveina, her professional partner, who pointed out that her last name, which is Samoan, was often mistaken for “avena,” Spanish for “oatmeal.”

The audience laughed.

Thomas then shifted to a description of her duties examining the faces of those in the pedestrian lines at the border, searching for signs of anxiety. “A lot of people think for two hours they can just stand in line, just kickin’ it, chillin’, having a good time, but then” — she pauses, her voice conspiratorial —“you got me in the shadows. I’m in the back. I’m behind that pillar, right there! I’m behind this car, duckin’ down, watchin’ every little thing you do.”

The audience was dead silent, students hanging on her every word.

“Any kind of nervous tic you have, I see that. I’m like, ‘Yeahhh, I’m gonna wait till you get to the front.’ They gonna walk up. They’re like, ‘Yeah, I got this … No sir, I’m not bringing anything, nothing to declare, just visiting my family, eating tacos’” — she pauses again — “and YANK! Gotcha!”

Some posters from the DHS anti-smuggling presentation at San Ysidro High School.

The agents showed photos of juvenile smugglers with blurred faces. In some photos, odd bulges showed through clothes. Others showed the minors revealing packages taped to their bodies.

“We see you in that two-hour line,” Aveina said. “You been up all night. You sweatin’ it. You got all this tape around you, all this narcotic. You don’t know what it is. And you’re standing there, and it’s hot, and — whoomp! — here comes the canine.”

Next onstage was Agent Brandon Nordhoff of the DHS’s special investigations team, who warned students that they were about to witness what he called the “violence section.”

“This is not something you guys are prepared for,” he said with a Southern twang. “I’m still not prepared for it, and I was a U.S. Marine in Iraq.”

Urging his listeners to close their eyes if they felt squeamish, Nordhoff then launched into a PowerPoint slideshow showing images of decapitated bodies and the like. Students murmured in disgust. Some gasped. A solitary voice from the back of the room exclaimed, “Cool!”

‘If you don’t wanna die …’

An undocumented immigrant detained by the U.S. Border Patrol near the U.S.-Mexico border in April 2013 near Mission, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

After the presentation, 14-year-old freshman Monica Liduvina Sanchez Martinez said that she was unfazed by the pictures. Though she’d never heard of teens from San Ysidro working as mules, she added, the gore wasn’t surprising.

“It was like ‘Call of Duty,’” she said, referring to the hugely popular video game. “That’s why I wasn’t grossed out, because I’m used to seeing that type of stuff.”

Still, she admitted it was a wake-up call. “When I first heard about (smuggling), I didn’t know that it was going on at all. I didn’t think it was a very big problem, I didn’t think people my age would be doing this stuff. Where are these people’s parents? How do they not know?”

Sophomore Keauni Arroyo, 15, agreed. She, too, hadn’t heard of any of her peers smuggling drugs but now had new concerns. “A lot of my friends want money. Money is their life,” she said. “And I think that if they’re offered more than a hundred dollars, that they’d go for it.”

The guest speakers stood along the side as the auditorium emptied out. A few students approached with inquiries. One boy asked who he could talk to if he knew something. Another student asked if canine units could detect drugs that had been doused in perfume.

“Dogs catch everything,” he was told.

Back in their classrooms some teachers had their students break into discussion groups to talk about the presentation. Keauni said classmates expressed concerns about racial profiling by CBP agents, noting that the program would have had more impact if teenage mules of all races had been shown. That way, she said, Mexican-American students wouldn’t feel singled out.

“I know a couple people, when they walked in and saw the ICE agents, they were like, ‘Oh my god! Run away!’” Keauni said. “I was like, ‘Guys, relax. They’re not here to arrest you.’”

The reaction is understandable. A number of troubling, high-profile cases involving allegations of U.S. authorities smuggling drugs and killing unarmed immigrants remain unresolved and haunt tight-knit border communities like San Ysidro.

“There are contradictions that are rarely talked about here,” said Christian Ramirez of Alliance SD, which promotes justice and social change. “The question is, does the (CBP) really have the moral authority to be conducting these sorts of trainings when it’s pretty much public knowledge that agents themselves have also been involved in smuggling operations?”

Nevertheless, San Ysidro High School students paid close attention to the presentation, which many had seen before. Keauni joked that she’d likely have to watch it again next year. She also offered a suggestion for improvement.

“Maybe if they made up a song,” she said. “People pay attention to songs. Especially when they’re funny, because then they’re like, ‘What? Did he seriously just say that?’”

She then recalled an expression heard often around the school after a sex-ed presentation: “No glove, no love.”

“I still say it!” she said, breaking into giggles. “Maybe they could have one like, If you don’t wanna die” — she thought for a moment — “don’t smuggle the high!”

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