U.S. Teens Duct-Taped With Drugs Crossing Border
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September 18, 2009 – 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.
Related story: Student Smugglers Viewed As 'Cool' By Peers
GLORIA PENNER (Host): The drug smuggling from Mexico into the U.S. is nothing new, but as law enforcement authorities try to stem the tide of drug trafficking they now have to worry about a troubling trend, young teenagers being recruited to tape drugs to their bodies and walk across the border. KPBS reporter Amy Isackson did a special report on the drug trade and she joins me now. Welcome, Amy. AMY ISACKSON (KPBS Reporter): Hi, Gloria. PENNER: How big a problem is this teen drug smuggling? ISACKSON: Federal officials say it's a big problem. I was listening to head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego the other day and he said it's one of the things they are most concerned about. To put it in context it still counts for a small of the panorama of drug smuggling across the border. But, federal officials at the border across California are seeing a spike now. It kind of goes in cycles, using teenagers isn't anything new. Five years ago, I believe they had 500 that they apprehended who driving across the border with people inside those cars. So far this year, they have arrested 130 kids with drugs taped, literally taped, to their bodies, duct taped under their clothes. PENNER: So, who are these kids? Where do they live, where do they go to the school, are they on this side of the border or the other side of the border? ISACKSON: They're kids from both sides of the border. They go to school, the majority of them, in San Diego. They go to schools right along both here in San Diego and also in Imperial County. Most of them speak English fluently, speak Spanish fluently and are comfortable on both sides of the border. They live in Tijuana, they live in San Diego, they have family in Tijuana. So, they are really used to crossing the border. They're used to seeing the agents. The agents are also used to seeing them. And they are also good kids, supposedly. Federal officials say they don't have criminal records. PENNER: So why are they being recruited? ISACKSON: A number of reasons. One, smugglers are always on the look out for new ways to get their contraband across the border. And, there are thousands of students who that cross everyday from Tijuana to go to school in San Diego. And I think that smugglers figure it out what we can blend in with that group. As we said, the kids are used to crossing and that they are relatively cheap labor. They are paid about $100 or $200 and to a 13- or 14-year-old that seems like a lot of money. PENNER: Is that the benefit to them? Is that what they get out of it, they money? ISACKSON: I think that's the primary benefit. I was talking to a girl who is 16 years old and she was telling me how this works at her school. And she said that her friend was doing it. Her friend would say every few weeks she would show up with a new Coach purse. So it's the "stuff," it's the "bling" as one federal official told me. But there's also this cultural aspect that the 16-year-old I talked to was telling me about that smuggling right now that if it's 100 percent, it's in, it's cool, she talked about how it give you the cachet that you are somehow tied to the drug cartels in Tijuana. PENNER: But, they’re kids, so what makes them stand out, how are they caught? ISACKSON: I think the agents were telling me that even though the kids are use to crossing the border, when they have drugs strapped to them, they act just slightly differently, and the agents are trained to be able to pick up on that. They were also telling me that the kids…will… a while ago they were putting them in very baggy clothes, and that was a tip off. Or the kid would be wearing a sweatshirt and it would be 90 degrees outside. PENNER: That’s a tip off. ISACKSON: Exactly. PENNER: Certainly. So, what happens when they’re caught? ISACKSON: Well, they’re turning them over to Immigrations & Customs Enforcement, and Immigrations & Customs Enforcement is turning them over actually to the state. Even though drug smuggling is a federal crime, the federal system here in San Diego and in Imperial Counties, aren’t equipped to deal with the problems, so the state is taking it. There aren’t any standard penalties in the juvenile system, so it really depends on the child, and their history, but the head of the district attorney’s office for juveniles said that, “You’re definitely not going to get to play your X-box for a while.” PENNER: Sure. ISACKSON: You’re going to be locked up while you’re waiting for your case to go through. And then it’s probation, and anything on up to youth prison. PENNER: Well, aside from the penalties and the bling, the money they get out of it, it’s got to be dangerous. ISACKSON: Dealing with drug smugglers, I don’t think, is ever safe. And these federal officials say these groups are independent groups. So, it’s not as though the Arrelano-Felix cartel members are going onto these campuses or around these campuses to recruit the kids. They are independent groups that are far down the food chain, as I’ve been told from federal officials… from the cartels in Tijuana. But, they resolve their problems with violence. They’ve threatened the kids. Because they’re on high school campuses, and some are friends with the kids, they know the kids’ lives. They talk about hurting their families, etc. PENNER: Well, thank-you very much Amy Isackson. ISACKSON: Thank-you.