Teenagers and children as young as 12 years old are getting involved in the drug smuggling trade along the U.S.-Mexico border – and may even be at risk for recruitment, federal agents say.
Suspected teen smugglers, according to the agents, have been caught this year trying to cross into southern California with drugs secretly taped to their bodies.
Last year, a record 190 teens - ages 18 and under - were caught smuggling drugs along the San Ysidro-San Diego County border, according to federal investigators. While the number is down to 128 so far this year, there are still disturbing new trends, said Jose Garcia, a deputy special agent for ICE Homeland Security Investigations.
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American and Mexican children are being recruited by cartels as drug mules, agents said. Recruiters used to target mainly teenage boys, but now they’re targeting young girls. And, these days, marijuana is no longer the drug of choice -- it's meth.
“It shocks me and saddens me that kids are getting involved. It doesn’t shock me that cartels will use whatever method they need,” Garcia said.
Garcia's agents have been focusing on teen drug smugglers since 2009, he said. Cartels have recruited kids outside schools, arcades and malls, he said.
Social media has also been used to entice potential teen smugglers.
“We’ve even had one recruited by someone they know on Facebook,” Garcia said.
The special agent said teens can carry as much as six kilos of drugs hidden under their clothing.
"If you look at the way that some females are dressed, it's hard to detect, they're wearing skinny jeans and tight tops and they still manage to hide it on them so the untrained eye wouldn't pick up on it," explained Garcia.
The money they get if they make it across the border is minimal compared to the risk they take.
“The lowest [payment] is $50 and the highest we’ve heard is about $500. But the average is somewhere between $75 and $300,” explained Garcia.
The cartel recruiters tell the kids that because they are minors, they won’t get in serious trouble.
However, Garcia says that selling point is misleading.
“The truth is if they are arrested with narcotics, especially hard narcotics, they're going to have two felonies on their record,” Garcia said.
To help combat the teen drug smuggling trend, agents have formed a special outreach program that travels from school to school, warning kids about the dangers of drug smuggling.
Agents also warn parents to be alert and aware of their teens’ cash flow. Agents say that if a child suddenly has a lot of money and parent don’t know where it came from, it could be a red flag.