Do Coercion Claims In Border Drug Smuggling Cases Signal A New Trend?
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Aired 12/12/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.
Jeremy Warren, criminal attorney representing Eugenio Velazquez
Octavio Rodriguez, USD's Trans-Border Institute
Victor Clark Alfaro, Director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights, lecturer, SDSU's Center for Latin American Studies
A prominent Mexican architect was sentenced in San Diego this week to six months in federal prison for drug smuggling. But it could have been much worse. Eugenio Velazquez faced a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years for smuggling more than 12 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. from Tijuana.
Prosecutors recommended the lighter sentence because of evidence Velazquez was threatened by drug dealers to smuggle the cocaine. It's a claim prosecutors rarely believe, but trans-border activists say coercion is being used more often to convince law-abiding citizens to haul illegal drugs.
Jeremy Warren, the criminal attorney representing Eugenio Velazquez, told KPBS that his client's story falls under the "truth is stranger than fiction" category.
"It does appear to be something you might see in a movie, but this is what happened," Warren said. "He had a client who had a ranch outside of Tijuana who hired him to design a facade for the ranch. They got to chatting, and they were discussing the violence in the region. And Mr. Velasquez expressed concerns for his safety based on things that had happened to people he'd known, friends, family, neighbors. And the man craftily told him oh, I can take care of you, I'm connected, I can provide you with some protection. Simple as this, you just call me when you cross the border in the morning on your way to work, call me on your way home after work, and I'll make sure you're protected."
Velazquez and a friend did this for a while, thinking it was a favor.
"Well, one day after a couple months of this, the man called up Velasquez and said he needed to see them," Warren said. "He got them in a car, drove around Tijuana, pulled over and said, 'this protection I've been providing, it comes at a price. I need $40,000 today.' Well, they didn't have the money. They were shocked about this. They said what are you talking about? The man's tone changed significantly. He pulled out a gun and he said, 'I'm not kidding around, I know where you live, I know where your families live, this is going to happen.' And when they said they didn't have the money, he said, 'well, there's another way. You can drive drugs.' And these two professionals looked at each other in shock. Ultimately it came down to a coin flip, and Mr. Velasquez lost."
Velazquez's sentencing came a month after Maximino Melchor, a young Tijuana opera singer, was sentenced to nine years in prison for smuggling methamphetamine across the border. Melchor's attorney also argued his client smuggled the drugs under duress. Cases like these are nothing new, said Victor Clark Alfaro, the director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights.
"People who have been extorted by the drug cartels or different levels of the organized crime in Tijuana to cross drugs to the U.S. side is not a new phenomenon," he said. "It has been happening probably for years."
But Octavio Rodriguez with University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute said despite the possible duress, smuggling is still a crime.
"And it doesn't matter if you know it or don't know it," he said. "If you're aware of even just attempting to cross the border with illegal substances, it's a crime."
But Warren said he disagrees. He said although coercion is difficult to prove, it does happen.
"For a long time, law enforcement's perspective has been everybody who's caught at the border driving a car that drugs are found in it is guilty, they know," he said. "One last thing in that regard that's been a big, big change. Last year, we had a series of cases where people were caught at the border with drugs, and during interrogation, they told the border inspectors, 'I responded to an advertisement in the newspaper. I went to an interview, I got hired, I thought I was bringing some paper, they gave me some papers to cross the border.' This happened with such frequency that now in every single package of discovery we get in a border bust case, they include information about advertisements. So for the first time, the government has actually recognized that people have been and can be used as what we call blind mules."
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.