Teens Used for Smuggling Across U.S.-Mexico Border

San Diego High School students are being recruited by Mexican smuggling cartels to ferry drugs and illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials apprehended more than one minor per day on average.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Mexican smuggling rings have found a new group of foot soldiers. High school students in Southern California are being recruited to bring illegal immigrants into the US. Last year, more than 500 teens were apprehended by federal agents at the San Diego border. They were caught with cars full of undocumented migrants. From member station KPBS, Amy Isackson reports.

AMY ISACKSON reporting:

Alfredo Marquez had just begun his sophomore year in high school when his classmates started working on him to smuggle people across the border.

Mr. ALFREDO MARQUEZ: They told me it's easy money, and, I don't know, it's just a five-minute thing, and you just get, like, 1,500 bucks out of one trip, and it was easy, so might as well do it.

ISACKSON: Marquez claims most of the guys at his school were doing it. They all had connections who knew the Tijuana ringleaders. And the ringleaders told the students they'd make piles of money and nothing would happen to them if they got caught because they were minors. Marquez says their sweet talk sucked him in. Whenever he'd get nervous, he'd just blare narcocorridos, Mexican ballads celebrating drug dealers, and sing along to give himself courage.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. MARQUEZ: I used to just get motivated. It was kind of like a motivation, hearing the lyrics of the song again.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

ISACKSON: Police Officer Carl Apodaca(ph) stands in the parking lot at San Ysidro High School, where the playing fields practically spill over into Tijuana, and you can see the enormous Mexican flag that greets visitors to Mexico waving gently in the breeze. Apodaca is a San Diego police liaison for schools. Students have described for him how the smuggling process usually works. The ringleader's driver comes right to the high school gate.

Officer CARL APODACA (San Diego Police): And they would get a signal to go ahead and run out the gate, meet somebody here in front that would pick them up and would take them across the border.

ISACKSON: The driver then gives the student the keys to another car, the one packed with the illicit cargo, and the student drives that car back across the border into San Diego. Apodaca says oftentimes, the students don't know how many illegal immigrants are hidden in the car or if they're carrying drugs. Mexican smugglers have a long history of exploiting people who don't ask a lot of questions. They've recruited homeless people out of soup kitchen lines, wrangled retirees and sold smuggling to down-and-out gamblers as a way to recoup their losses. According to customs and border protection officials, the latest trend is teens.

(Soundbite of traffic)

ISACKSON: In late 2003, customs agents working here at the San Ysidro border crossing noticed an upsurge in the number of minors attempting to smuggle people into the United States. Then last year, they apprehended at least one minor every day. Port director Bruce Ward supervises what is the world's busiest border crossing.

Mr. BRUCE WARD (Port Director, San Ysidro Border Crossing): We've had kids from very affluent schools to very poor schools that are doing it, schools out of the LA area, of south San Diego, all over San Diego.

ISACKSON: Ward says smugglers even tried to recruit his teen-age son. The teen-agers who get caught tell Ward they took the risk, in part, because they didn't think there would be consequences. Ward acknowledges most minors do get off easy. First-time offenders' parents come down and pick them up.

Mr. WARD: We also turn a lot of these kids over to the San Diego PD, because a lot of them are smuggling during school hours. A lot of them are drinking.

ISACKSON: But truancy and underage drinking are only minor infractions. There is no state law barring minors from smuggling humans, and the federal justice system is not equipped to prosecute minors. So out of the 500 teens apprehended last year, only about a dozen were tried for human smuggling in San Diego. That concerns local Drug Enforcement Administration agents. They've seen that human smuggling can often lead to smuggling drugs, so they're trying to go directly to area schools, to warn students about the dangers. So far, only one school has allowed the DEA in.

Mr. MISHA PIASTRO (Agent, Drug Enforcement Administration): Who's this guy? Anybody recognize this guy? He's a very well-known local character. He was an enforcer for the Arellano Felix cartel, the Tijuana cartel. His friend shot him, shot him right in the eye. This is him on the slab.

ISACKSON: DEA agent Misha Piastro tells two ninth-grade classes about the legal penalties and often grisly consequences that go along with smuggling drugs.

Mr. PIASTRO: The coroner's opening him up, doing an autopsy. You can see the stitches. He got caught up in drug trafficking at a very early age. He grew up here in one of our neighborhoods and was able to cross the border fairly easily.

ISACKSON: The cautionary tales don't resonate with some students.

Unidentified Student: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. PIASTRO: What was that name?

Unidentified Student: Tolo Limasi(ph).

Unidentified Student: El Tigrio(ph).

Unidentified Student: El Tigrio.

Unidentified Student: El Tigrio.

Mr. PIASTRO: Mr. El Tigrio?

Unidentified Student: Yeah.

Mr. PIASTRO: Not personally, no.

ISACKSON: After the presentation, a group of boys gathers around agent Piastro and peppers him with questions about which drug dealers he knows. They bat around the names of the most infamous ones like they're baseball all-stars. As one freshman explains, drug dealers are their idols, their role models.

But Alfredo Marquez, the teen-age smuggler, who's now 22, says the glory of smuggling faded for him one cold, dark night in Tijuana. Marquez says two years into his career, he got pulled over by Mexican police. He says the officers handcuffed him, bundled him into the back of their cruiser and took him to the notorious Tijuana dump. There, they pulled him out of the car and threatened to kill him.

Mr. MARQUEZ: And I just felt the barrel in the back of my head, and I just felt that it was over, you know. No more Alfredo.

ISACKSON: The police demanded to know who he was working for.

Mr. MARQUEZ: I mean, the words that they used to say that, `You know what? I don't have a problem in killing you and just digging a hole in the dump. You're going to be a desaparecido.' That's what they said.

ISACKSON: Desaparecido, one of the hundreds of people who disappear. Marquez told the officers who his ringleader was. Apparently, they were buddies with the guy, and spared Marquez his life.

Mr. MARQUEZ: Reality slaps you literally in the face, and you either change your life, or most likely you're going to end like that. And hopefully nobody has to go through that, you know.

ISACKSON: Marquez stopped smuggling people after that night, but even though he says he's been out of the business for three years, he still looks over his shoulder when he tells this story. Marquez says smuggling is something that follows you your whole life. For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.

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