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Drug Smuggling Twist: Mexicans Allegedly Duped By Mennonite Suspect
Monday, April 7, 2014
Federal prosecutors in Texas and New Mexico are dealing with a series of unusual cases.
Ten drug smuggling crimes have been traced to a man from a Mennonite community in Mexico who is alleged to have duped the victims to win their cooperation.
The seduction starts with a classified ad in the newspaper, one that a 23-year-old named Juan was drawn to.
He asks that his last name not be revealed. He's frightened there may be retribution if the man who placed the ad – identified by federal prosecutors and the victims as David Giesprecht Fehr – finds him.
We’re near Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, a Mennonite town in the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico. The ad in Spanish reads:
"Si tienes visa laser recienmente americano, contratación inmediata."
"If you have a recent U.S. visa known as a laser visa, there's immediate work available."
The man who placed the ad is from a 40,000-strong Mennonite community of ranchers and farmers. They’re members of a conservative Christian church with European roots. Mennonites were invited by Mexico's post-revolutionary government to settle here in the 1920s. The Mennonites in Chihuahua today trace their ancestry to Canada and, prior to that, Germany and the Netherlands.
Juan answered the ad. And a man called back.
The man said, "I’ll pay you $500 a week to drive my truck to the U.S. and back." Juan was making $70 a week as a security guard.
The would-be employer, David Giesbrecht Fehr, goes by different aliases and imports American farm equipment. It’s now alleged he ran narcotics.
He allegedly pitches non-Mennonite Mexicans who respond to his ad by saying that he has a legitimate business importing farm equipment from the United States. Mennonites have made the harsh Chihuahuan Desert bloom by digging deep wells to irrigate crops such as corn, cotton and wheat.
What he allegedly did not add is that the trucks he gave people to enter the U.S. with were loaded with large quantities of marijuana.
Juan thought the job offer was too good to be true. The caller was offering to quadruple his salary and give him steady work with health benefits.
So he told the caller he needed time to consider the offer. The same offer was made to Juan's father. They discussed it. The father declined, while Juan accepted.
Liz Rogers was the federal defender in west Texas whose office represented Juan and five other Mexicans.
The other three were arrested crossing into New Mexico.
"Whenever the person that is a Mennonite that the government has identified, whenever he showed up, he could talk to them very professionally over exporting and importing farm equipment," said Rogers.
"And so it would be no wonder that they’d believe it was a legitimate job."
It was anything but. When Juan hit the Texas border at Presidio, a customs agent told him to get out of the truck.
"They didn’t tell me what was happening," he said in Spanish. Then another customs officer approached.
The officer said a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent would explain everything. When that agent arrived, the conversation continued.
"Are you carrying drugs?" the agent asked Juan. He replied absolutely not. He couldn’t believe what he heard next.
"The DEA agent told me I had 57 kilograms (125 pounds) of marijuana in the gas tank," Juan said.
"I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe."
Rogers said one of the cases showed how sophisticated the operation was.
"The marijuana was hidden very professionally in an I-beam," she recounted.
"It was welded into the I-beam of this big flatbed. And the government found it because there’s X-ray equipment that can find very well-hidden marijuana."
At least seven of the people allegedly duped by Giesprecht, including Juan, live near a cluster of Mennonite villages near Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, about 90 miles into the Mexican interior
One non-Mennonite interviewed outside Ciudad Cuauhtémoc – a man who said he greatly respects the Mennonite culture – said his neighbors are hard-working farmers. But he says there are exceptions.
"They plant corn. Sometime plant some marijuana, too," he said in English.
For Juan, arrested with 125 pounds of drugs, and the others in New Mexico and Texas, the prospect of serious jail time was real. But as evidence tied to Fehr mounted, New Mexico dismissed all of the cases.
In Texas, three defendants were allowed to plead guilty to time served and immediately deported. Their visas also were revoked, and the revocations last for three years.
As a practical matter, none of the defendants will find it easy to return to the United States, even for a visit with family. Juan, for example, has aunts and cousins in Denver and Los Angleles.
But if Juan presented himself at a border crossing, a computer check of his documents would show he had faced serious drug charges and accepted a plea deal that included immediate deportation.
But Juan’s just happy to be home.
"They treated me well in the U.S." he said in Spanish. "No one pressured me, no one attacked me. I have nothing against the U.S. prosecutors or police."
Fehr, the alleged drug trafficker, remains at-large.
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