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Teens And Duct Tape Are Drug Smugglers’ Latest Tactic

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Aired 9/16/09

Drug smugglers along the U.S. Mexico border are using a new tactic to sneak their contraband into the United States. They're recruiting junior high and high school students, some as young as thirteen years old.

This teen was caught entering the U.S. from Mexico with narcotics strapped to his torso.
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Above: This teen was caught entering the U.S. from Mexico with narcotics strapped to his torso.

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Above: Smugglers have discovered a new way to bring their drugs into the U.S. KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson has details about why teens are crossing the border with drugs taped to their bodies.

— Drug smugglers along the U.S. Mexico border are using a new tactic to sneak their contraband into the United States. The gangs are recruiting junior high and high school students, some as young as 13 years old.

A girl we’ll call Alicia was 14 years old when she was introduced to drug smuggling. She was a freshman at Montgomery High School, near the border. She went to her 16-year-old friend’s house in Tijuana. They curled up on the couch to watch telenovelas and talk.

"We were home alone. And then her friend called on the radio. He was like, well, let me use your house and, like, we’ll give you a little money. And she was like, yeah, sure, whatever."

Alicia said three young men showed up. She guessed they were 17, 18 and 21 years old. They were dressed in fancy jeans and tennis shoes and they were carrying a couple of gym bags.

They came into the house, took the 17-year-old’s shirt off and started duct taping marijuana to his stomach. Then they used a woman’s corset to cinch him in.

Alicia said she and her friend lay on the bed and watched.

"Like, I thought they were going to flirt and stuff. You know how guys are. But they were totally into their stuff," Alicia said. She said the 17-year-old didn’t seem nervous at all.

"And I was like, oh my god. He’s crazy. No, stop," Alicia said. "But I couldn’t say nothing because I was scared that they might do something to me. So, I was like, OK, you know what you’re doing."

The older boys made their charge change into soccer sweats to further mask the contraband. They left for the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing. An hour and a half later, they were back with money in their pockets, cocaine up their noses and plans to party.

"I was like, dude, you hang out with them? She was like, business is business," said Alicia. "And I was like, you’re stupid. You’re going to get in trouble. And she’s all like no I’m not. I know what I am doing."

She said her friend not only loaned out her house, but would get taped up, too. Every few weeks, she’d show up at school with expensive new purses.

Thousands of students at schools in San Diego live in Tijuana and cross the border every morning. The majority are US citizens. Smugglers are always devising new ways to get drugs across, and using teenagers is nothing new. Taping is the latest tactic.

In fact, federal officials in California have caught three times the number of teenagers so far this year compared to last. Even so, federal officials say they account for just a tiny fraction of drug smuggling activity along the border.

Standing here on the edge of the playing fields at the San Ysidro Middle School, there is a panoramic view of Tijuana. You can see the big Mexican flag waving in the wind. It’s so close, you can see the cars driving on Tijuana’s streets.

"It was the most heartbreaking news you could ever get," said principal David Torres.

Three of his students were caught in line at the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing last spring. They had drugs taped under their school uniforms.

"I was shocked. Specifically, because one of the young people was a female student who is highly regarded by her teachers," said Torres "The joy that she has coming to school everyday and to see the words marijuana smuggling next to her name was very difficult."

Torres said the three were recruited at their apartment complex on the San Diego side of the border, just a few miles from the school.

Recruiters reportedly also cruise parties and bars in Tijuana to find older prospects. Alicia said a few students at her high school work the campus.

"They tell you you’ll make good money," she said. "And, like if you’re in need of money, they’ll know. Cause like high school everyone knows your life."

In the case of the three middle school students, Torres said the smugglers threatened the two boys until they gave in. The promise of $60 enticed the girl. She wanted a new dress for graduation. Torres said news of the arrests spread through the school in a matter of hours.

"Some students were very candid and said, Mr. Torres, this happens quite a bit. This is not new. It happens to more kids at the high school," said Alicia. "But it is coming down more to our level, because they don’t think they are going to frisk us or ask us questions. They see us in our uniform, our backpacks. We were visiting grandma. And we cross the border. That’s it."

Alicia estimates she alone knows at least 15 kids who’ve done it.

She said it’s like the hottest thing at school right now.

In part 2 of this series, reporter Amy Isackson will look at how law enforcement is handling the problem of teenage tapers. The story will be available online on Thursday morning.

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