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Teens Used To Smuggle Drugs Across Border


We'll look at how teenagers are being lured into smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Drug trafficking has caused a rash of social problems in Mexico. Cartels have been waging war against each other and against law enforcement. There have been assassinations, shootouts and rampant institutional corruption, all stemming from the sale of illegal drugs. Now, add to the list, the use of school kids as drug mules across the US-Mexico border. On KPBS radio's Morning Edition our border reporter Amy Isackson has revealed the story of drug smugglers enlisting young teenagers to tape drugs to their bodies, and cross the border from Tijuana into the U.S. Federal officials say they're catching more of the "taped teenagers" than ever before. And here with the story is KPBS reporter Amy Isackson. Welcome, Amy.

AMY ISACKSON (Reporter, KPBS): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now before we start to talk about this, here's what junior high school students at San Ysidro Middle School heard from their principal after three of their classmates were caught smuggling drugs.

DAVID TORRES (Principal, San Ysidro Middle School): Well, students, I want to tell you about a very sad moment in our school. Three of our students, unfortunately, were arrested for smuggling drugs across the border. I do remember telling them that they were not demonstrating, you know, Viking pride. That's what we follow here. Our character education is Viking pride. They were not demonstrating Viking pride. They made a mistake, they made an error. We are not judging them, we are not anyone to judge but, nevertheless, these are the things that you, as minors, need to be aware of. And if someone has approached you, if someone has come up to you whether it's here at the school, on the way home, on the way up to school, talk to your parents, number one. Number two, if you have communicated with your parents, come talk to us and we'll help you as much as we can. Call the police. Call the police. They are the first line of defense for you besides your parents. Let them know. And just be aware that there are people out there recruiting and trying to convince kids that this is the route to go. And this is not the route to go. This is not what we're supposed to do. Something to that effect.

ISACKSON: And that was David Torres who's the principal of San Ysidro Middle School. And he had three students from his school, two 13 year olds and a 14 year old, who were caught for coming across the border with drugs taped to themselves at the San Ysidro border crossing last spring. And that case of those three kids is pretty emblematic of what's going on. They were two boys and a girl. One of the boys – two of the boys, Principal Torres says that they were threatened, and they were all three were recruited at the apartment complex where they live near the school. They were threatened then the two boys finally, according to Mr. Torres, just gave in. And the girl, he said, was lured in by $60.00, that's what they were offering to pay her for smuggling drugs across the border, and he said it was because she wanted a new dress for graduation. And he said that her teachers were crushed because she's a really good student, and he talked about her fire for education every day when she comes to school and they just couldn't believe that she had done this.

CAVANAUGH: So, Amy, when you look at the problem of kids in Tijuana smuggling drugs across the U.S. border, how big a problem is this? Do you have any estimation?

ISACKSON: Well, it's not just kids in Tijuana. It's students here who go to schools on this side of the border, along the border in San Diego and also in the Imperial County, and many of them live in Tijuana and cross every day to go to school. But in terms of how big of a problem it is, federal officials say teen smuggling in general is a big problem. I was listening to the director of ICE in San Diego talk last night and he mentioned it as one of the things that they are concerned about and one of the things that they're seeing a rise in. To put it into context, it still accounts for a fraction of the drug smuggling across the border and the overall number – the overall amount of drugs that are coming across, and also people coming across because teenagers are getting caught and have been caught smuggling people across the border. It goes in cycles. About five years ago in San Diego, there were more than 500 juveniles who'd been arrested smuggling drugs and people across the border. Federal officials say then it died down and it now has come – it's now come back up and we're seeing it with this new iteration with these kids who are taping drugs to themselves and coming across.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, tell us more about the taping because that seems to be really part and parcel of this new rise in the transportation of drugs by teenagers.

ISACKSON: Sure, so the kids are coming across and they literally have drugs duct taped under their clothes. And here, we can listen to Oscar Preciado, who directs the San Ysidro Port of Entry, describe the problem.

OSCAR PRECIADO (Director, San Ysidro U.S. Port of Entry): They're strapping the drugs to their back, their stomachs. One thing they're starting to do recently is they're strapping to the back of their knees and it just kind of fits very normal in that area and we found some females, young females, that are putting that so tight with tape and then they put on these real tight kind of jeans that when you look at them, it's very hard to detect they have anything there. Like a needle in a haystack. We need to find them.

ISACKSON: And some of these kids actually have the drugs – they've been arrested with drugs under their school uniforms. And Preciado told me they were seeing kids in really baggy clothes for a while but then that became a dead giveaway. A girl I talked to also was telling me about how she witnessed a kid being taped up when – in Tijuana and that they were very careful to tape it really tightly and to pack the drugs in really small packages and they actually used a women's corset to cinch him in so that he wouldn't look big and bulky.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us, Amy, a little bit about – I think it's confusing about where these kids actually live. Are they American citizens? Are they Mexican citizens? Where are they going to school? Can you clear that up for us?

ISACKSON: The majority are U.S. citizens or they're legal permanent residents, the kids that can cross the border easily. And that's part of what's attractive, is that they can go across and they go across regularly, daily. There are thousands of kids who live in Tijuana who cross the border every day to go to school in San Diego, and there are also kids who live – many live in San Diego but have family in Tijuana. They cross regularly. They speak both English and Spanish fluently, and they're really comfortable on both sides of the border, so crossing the border isn't anything out of the ordinary for them. Many of them, federal officials say, come from middle class families. They don't have criminal records. They say most of the kids that they've caught recently look clean cut so they don't draw border agents' attention. And one 13 year-old girl we heard about was, as we said, was a good student, and they say that a lot of the kids that they're catching are good students. Most range in age from 13 up to 18. The majority are the older teenagers but there have been these cases of younger kids. And federal officials say for a little bit it seems like it was skewing younger and perhaps that's because they just wouldn't detect the kids. Mr. Torres, the principal of San Ysidro Middle School, was telling me how students told him when the three kids were caught, we're not that surprised about it. We go across every day. The border agents see us in our school uniforms. They're used to us. We're used to them. They think we just went to grandma's house and spent the night and we're coming back across the border. Now I talked with a girl called Alicia and she goes to Montgomery High School and she – we can – she told me a little bit more about the recruiting process.

ALICIA (Montgomery High School Student): Well, in my school there's a lot of people that are trying to get like 16, 15 year olds, probably 14, to cross drugs from TJ to over here. And it's really like they try – try to aim at the little kids because they know like if they get caught, they would like have less time. But they usually tell you, oh, you'll get a lot of money. You'll get a lot of money, a lot. There's probably like your friend's boyfriend, they're like, oh, if you don't do it, we'll do something to your boyfriend. And we're like, oh, yeah, the money so you'll like go for it.

CAVANAUGH: That's Alicia, and how old is she?

ISACKSON: She's now 16 years old. And her real name isn't Alicia but that's what we're using to protect her identity and to protect her.

CAVANAUGH: So if this is not a huge part of the trafficking that goes across the border, the US-Mexico border, why are these kids being recruited by gangs?

ISACKSON: I think there's a couple of reasons. I think that it's not a huge part but the gangs – And I think it's important to make this distinction, federal officials say that the gangs that they're being recruited by are independents. So they're – they say – I asked, are they tied to El Teo or the Arellano-Felix cartel in Tijuana? And they said they're down the food chain from them. There's maybe some relationship at some point but these are groups that are operating as independents, just smuggling drugs across the border. With that in mind, these are independent groups. They're relatively small, I believe, and if they get drugs across, it's lucrative for them. They can just kind of – federal officials say they take the shotgun approach. They send a lot of kids across and if some of them get caught, it doesn't matter because others may get through and they can make money off of those drugs. Also, the kids, I believe, are relatively cheap labor. A few hundred dollars seems to be the going rate for most of the kids who are going across with the drugs taped to themselves. And that's – a couple hundred dollars may seem not much to us but I think to a kid that seems a lot. And smuggling groups are also always on the lookout for new ways to get drugs across. Federal officials describe it as a game of cat and mouse. And so I think, as we talked about just a few minutes ago, that the smuggling groups believe that these kids will go across undetected. Who would suspect that a teenager on their way to school would be smuggling drugs? Also, one of the tactics that the smugglers have used for years is trying to fit in with legitimate traffic that's crossing the border. So a border official who I talked to at the border crossing said, you know, whether it's tourists, that they had people coming across with a tequila bottle in their hand that had drugs in the tequila bottle or a piñata, and that thousands of students cross the border every day so smugglers are trying to camouflage their charges into that crowd. And also we've heard that smugglers are threatening the kids who they try to recruit because they're young, and younger children may be more susceptible to those threats and see them as scarier, not have the faculties to deal with them and so they get roped in that way as well. Alicia, the student, Montgomery High School, also said that smugglers – she said that there's a little group on campus and that in high school everyone knows the details of everyone's lives and so, she said, if you need money they're going to know and they're going to approach you.

CAVANAUGH: And they're going to approach you. I'm speaking with KPBS border reporter Amy Isackson, and we are talking about her reports on Morning Edition in a couple – a series of reports about the use of school kids to smuggle drugs across the US-Mexico border. And, Amy, what kind of drugs actually are being smuggled?

ISACKSON: The majority are smuggling marijuana and that's – federal officials say that's the least expensive drug, the least expensive to lose. And they say that the smuggling groups start the kids off with that and then move them on up if the kids prove to be good smugglers. And there's been a few cases of meth and of heroin as well but the bulk really is marijuana.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit more about what you were saying about on campus, everybody knows your business and so if you need some money for something, got to get your car fixed or have some other expense, that you might be targeted to – somebody might come over and ask you if you want to do this.

ISACKSON: Federal officials say recruiters may be working on and around school grounds, and they're investigating that. As we heard from Alicia, she says there are recruiters on her campus and they're – she described them as older kids who have ties outside and they work as kind of the representatives for these smuggling groups. And federal officials won't say which high schools this – or junior highs as well, perhaps, that this is happening on. They say that's sensitive information. And, you know, David Torres, the principal of San Ysidro Middle School, says the students at his school, as we heard, were recruited at the apartments that they live in. And he says no one's been recruited on school (sic). They say that they have a closed campus. And he also said that smuggling is something he never ever thought that he would have to deal with.

TORRES: In my experiences, we're talking almost 20 years of education, I've had my share of, you know, as they – to use the word 'busting' kids for having drugs, for possession, for selling and for other things but not for the smuggling piece. That's – that's a new one for me, especially at this age. At the middle school level, having students to be recruited to smuggle drugs, that's a difficult one to swallow. A difficult one.

ISACKSON: And federal officials also told me that in addition to schools, it's parks in Tijuana. It's arcades, it's places where kids hang out. And they said that these recruiters are – they're psychologically adept so they can go into a situation, they size it up, they kind of pick out the kid that they want to go after, the kid that they think might be susceptible. Federal officials call these recruiters one trick ponies, that they know how to get in there and how to appeal to students and children.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, when you talk about what the students, these kids, get in return, we're talking really small potatoes here. You're talking $60.00 for a dress. It seems that it's not in proportion to the risk that these kids are taking. What do they get in return for carrying these drugs?

ISACKSON: Well, there's the money and then there's the stuff. Federal officials were telling me about iPhones and iPods and new clothes and expensive clothes. And there's also the aspect that Alicia talked about was that there's this popularity associated with it. She said that it's in style. She said, she used the words, it's like a hundred percent, that you hear kids talking about this all the time. Some of them talk because they do it, some of them talk because they want to seem cool. But the fact is that, from what she says, there's this cool factor about it. She said in addition to the new jeans and to the new purses that girls get, that girls like to date narcos and so that's an attractive thing for the boys. And also federal officials talked about this bad boy image and that that's appealing to teenagers to have that, and this gives them a little bit of that. And Alicia also said that there's a lot of discussion that people, because of the close ties to Tijuana, there's a lot of discussion about the violence there and about who the main players are in the cartels there. And some kids will say, oh, yeah, I work for El Teo or I'm from this group, I'm from that group, to try and have this kind of associated cool.

CAVANAUGH: And apparently some federal officials are reaching out to parents and trying to make them aware that all of this is going on.

ISACKSON: The Immigration and Customs enforcement agent that I spoke with says that there was a group of law enforcement officials who saw this rise in arrests and saw that most of these kids are good kids and they were horrified, really, and wanted to get together to do something about it. And so they went to – They decided that they were going to do presentations and they went to San Ysidro Middle School and did a presentation and here we'll listen to – This is Jose Garcia, and he was recapping some of the messages that he tried to get across at the meeting.

JOSE GARCIA (Official, U.S. Immigration and Customs): You know, they see rap stars and everybody else that has all this bling and they want it. They want the bling and they want it now and they don't understand that the average person doesn't – has to work towards that for many years. So that was the message we tried to send.

ISACKSON: And he was also telling parents you've got to watch out for this bling. So if your kid shows up in $150 jeans or tennis shoes, or has a new iPhone all of a sudden and you know that you can't afford to pay for that, you have to ask yourself what happened.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly, where did that money come from. If kids basically are going back and forth across the border all the time, some in school uniforms, how is it that they wind up getting caught?

ISACKSON: Federal officials, the CBP people, the Customs and Border Protection people who work down at the Port of Entry say they simply look for kids who are nervous. They say even though kids might cross the border every day, once they have drugs taped to them, there's something that's a little off. The kid acts a little differently. So they do things like look for kids that don't make direct eye contact, they look for kids that have their pulse that they can see it, you know, going a hundred miles an hour in their neck, and it's just signs like that. When the baggy clothes were in, they were looking for kids with baggy clothes, they were looking for kids who were wearing sweatshirts on 85, 90 degree days, just things that didn't quite fit in.

CAVANAUGH: And what are the penalties if a teenager does get caught smuggling drugs in this taping manner across the border?

ISACKSON: It's an interesting question because smuggling drugs is a federal crime but here in San Diego County and Imperial Counties (sic), the federal system just isn't set up to prosecute minors. There's no detention space among other problems. So what we were seeing with the vehicle smuggling with migrants, kids were getting let go and that still seems to be a problem. But with the drug smuggling, the state is taking the cases and they're charging them with state crimes, possession of drugs and transportation of drugs. So the state is taking the cases. It appears that ICE is turning the kids over to the state officials for prosecution and there are no standard penalties. But the District Attorney who I talked with in the Juvenile Division says at least the kids are going to spend time in juvenile hall while their case is being processed and then it's anything from being sent home on probation, having curfews, getting your drivers license taken away, on up to the youth prison if that's significant – if the crime was significant enough.

CAVANAUGH: You know, aside from the legal troubles that kids can get into, I would imagine having anything to do with drug smuggling coming out of Mexico is terribly dangerous. And I'm wondering, do the kids realize that they are now connecting themselves with some very lethal people?

ISACKSON: It's hard to say. I would imagine that they know that drug smuggling isn't a very safe thing to do. As Alicia was talking about, they are aware of what's going on in Tijuana. But there's also this cool factor associated with it which I don't know the psychology of these teenagers but maybe that overrides some of the fear or there's the thought it's not really going to happen to me. But the – it's never safe to be involved with drug smugglers, I think, is what it boils down to and we've seen – there were four kids at the, I believe it was May of last – May of this year, from Chula Vista and the officials say that one of them was tied in with drug smuggling, they believe, on some level but the friends that were with him got killed as well. So that's something – that's something. And I think that also aside from just the dangers from kids who are doing it, as we will hear Alicia tell us, it's scary for kids who are even just on the sidelines or marginally involved.

ALICIA: I guess I thought my dad was going to know something was wrong. But it was just my like conscience. I was like, oh, my God, oh, my God. I just saw this, I just saw that. Like I felt like telling my dad but then he wouldn't want me hanging around with her so I didn't say nothing but I was just like thinking, oh, my God, what if we would've gotten cut? What if this would've happened? What if they would've killed us? I was actually, you know, like, what if they put something in my sweater? What if they put something in my purse? I was, like, really scared.

ISACKSON: And that was this 16-year-old, Alicia, and she was talking about two years ago when she was at her friend's house in Tijuana and she saw a kid get taped up, the friend's – her friend's friends came over to use the house as a staging ground for the taping.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I think when people hear this, there's something that just is really exceptionally bad about using children and potentially messing up their lives by getting them involved in something like this. I wonder, is there now a full court press by schools to alert parents and so forth? Where are we in terms of enforcement?

ISACKSON: Enforcement, the enforcement side of it, there's an open investigation. Federal and local law enforcement agencies are looking into this to try and figure out who these recruiters are and how this all works. The law enforcement, also as we discussed, band together and went and did a PTA meeting. They've done two of those. They're planning one more. But they say that it's sensitive, that a lot of schools don't want the stigma of being attached to drug smuggling and talking about drug smuggling so it does take some convincing to get in there. I talked to the San Diego Police Department Resources Officer, the head of them, Angel Rosario, and he directs a group of police officers who are on school campuses and he said he's really not that worried about it, that he started 15 years ago and he's seen teen smuggling before and he doesn't think any has changed but that seems to be at odds with the idea that there is this federal investigation and that federal officials say that they're concerned about it. Parents seem to be concerned as well. At the PTA meeting at the San Ysidro Middle School, 60 parents came, excuse me. Says Principal Torres, normally 5 people come.

CAVANAUGH: That's – And I know, Amy, that you will continue to keep us up to date on this. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today about this. Thank you.

ISACKSON: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with KPBS border reporter Amy Isackson. Now you can hear Amy Isackson's two-part series on teen drug smugglers at our website, And if you'd like to comment on what you've just heard, do comment online, And coming up, we will talk about the new trend of charitable giving called social branding. It's next right here on KPBS.

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