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Student Smugglers Viewed As ‘Cool’ By Peers

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Aired 9/17/09

Federal officials have caught three times as many teenagers so far this year compared to last, trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border with drugs duct taped to their bodies. In the second part of this two-part series, KPBS border reporter Amy Isackson looks at how law enforcement is trying to deal with the problem which is complicated by a certain "cool factor."

A teen is caught crossing the border with packages of illegal narcotics taped to his body.
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Above: A teen is caught crossing the border with packages of illegal narcotics taped to his body.

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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.

Federal officials have caught three times as many teenagers so far this year compared to last, trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border with drugs taped to their bodies. In the second part of this two-part series, KPBS border reporter Amy Isackson looks at how law enforcement is trying to deal with the problem which is complicated by a certain “cool factor.”

Hundreds of people are lined up here at the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing on their way to San Diego. Many of them are children.

"Like this kid, crossing right now. You see thousands of kids like him coming across," said Oscar Preciado, who directs the port of entry.

"He’s holding some kind of book. He’s got a pen in the other hand. He’s young. And most of these kids are U.S. citizens residing in Mexico. So they cross here everyday," said Preciado. "So these kids are used to us. And we are used to them. So, I think the smugglers said let’s see if we can use that as an avenue to get drugs across."

Preciado had just gotten word that a few hours earlier customs agents at Otay Mesa caught three teenagers with drugs taped to themselves.

Smugglers have used teenagers in the past, to do things like drive carloads through the vehicle lanes. Taping drugs to students is a new tactic. And it changes the game. Preciado said in the vehicle lanes it’s easy to ask someone to pop their trunk.

"But, if you’re going to take somebody and say, 'Take your shoes off or spread your legs open, I want to pat you down, or frisk you,' you need to have a little more," he said.

Federal officials say smugglers recruit students on school campuses and at parties and bars in Tijuana. They wave cash at the teenagers.

Between $100-$200 seems to be the going rate. Smugglers also convince the teenagers nothing will happen if they get caught because they’re minors.

Smuggling drugs across the border is a federal crime. The federal court systems in San Diego and Imperial Counties are not equipped to prosecute minors. However, Michelle Linley who heads the San Diego District Attorney’s Juvenile Division, says the state is taking the cases and there are penalties.

"At least you are going to spend time in Juvenile Hall where you are not going to be able to play your X-box," Linley said.

Prosecutors charge teenagers with transportation of drugs and possession with intent to sell. Sentences range from probation up to youth prison. Imperial County’s Juvenile Hall has only 20 beds. So kids can’t stay there that long. Officials with the District Attorney’s office there say most are put on probation and sent home.

Meanwhile, Mexican teenagers who get caught jeopardize their immigration status. After seeing the increase in arrests, a group of law enforcement officials in San Diego banded together to address the problem.

Jose Garcia, who is with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the group asked San Ysidro Middle School if it’d be interested in a presentation. Three students from the school were caught at the San Ysidro border last spring. They had drugs taped under their school uniforms.

One of the messages Garcia gave parents was, "If you can’t afford to buy your kids $150 tennis shoes or jeans and they’re wearing them, you've got to ask yourself, how did that happen?"

Garcia said it takes convincing to organize meetings like that one. Schools officials worry they’ll stigmatize their campus. San Ysidro Principal David Torres says 60 parents showed up. He says most PTA meetings draw about five.

"They were coming up with things ICE, or customs agents, or SDPD were not aware of. That this is more prevalent than they know. That this problem has existed for a long time," said Garcia. "And that I know that my neighbor, two houses down, or my neighbor down the street is involved in this activity and I need to share that with you."

A girl we’ve called Alicia was introduced to drug smuggling two years ago. She was a freshman at Montgomery High School. She said she watched a kid get taped up at her friend’s house in Tijuana. Alicia said back then the money was what drew kids in. But she now says taping is also in style.

"Like in TJ, there’s like corridos, I guess. And if you do something bad, they make a song about you. And you’ll feel cool." She says for boys, being a "narco" also gets you dates.

Alicia said law enforcement is a few years late to the game, but she’s glad they’re finally catching on. "Cause, like imagine the little kids, what they’re going to get into in their future. That’s bad."

Federal officials say there’s an ongoing investigation into the smuggling groups. They’re trying to track down the people who recruit and tape teens.

Related

Special Report: Teens and Duct Tape: Drug Smugglers' Latest Tactic

These Days: Teens Used To Smuggle Drugs Across Border

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