Migrants Say They're Unwilling Mules For Cartels Traffickers are reportedly forcing illegal border crossers to smuggle drugs into the U.S. For courts along the border, it's a struggle to decide how to deal with terrified migrants, especially when there's no proof to their claims.
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Migrants Say They're Unwilling Mules For Cartels

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Migrants Say They're Unwilling Mules For Cartels

Migrants Say They're Unwilling Mules For Cartels

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And there is another way the Mexican drug cartels smuggle illegal drugs into the U.S. - illegal immigrants. Federal agents, prosecutors, defense attorneys and migrants themselves say that traffickers have begun recruiting undocumented immigrants at the border, both voluntarily and involuntarily. Now, U.S. courts along the border have to decide what to do with terrified immigrants who come before them and say, the cartel made me do it. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Rodolfo and Jose Luis were fairly typical economic immigrants. Strong, resourceful and poor, they arrived at Ojinaga, Mexico, with the intention of crossing the border and making their way to Colorado to look for work as roofers. But when they arrived at the Rio Grande on October 21st, ready for the journey north, they were met by three trucks full of heavily-armed young toughs belonging to La Linea, a drug gang based upriver in Juarez.

RODOLFO LUIS: (Speaking Spanish)

BURNETT: They hit us, threw us on the ground, searched us and took our money, said Rodolfo. Then they told us if we didn't smuggle drugs for them, they would kill us. They didn't give us any other option. So that's what Rodolfo and Jose Luis did. They each shouldered a 50-pound backpack full of marijuana and carried it across the dry riverbed into Presidio County, Texas. The cartel guide who accompanied them carried a radio, but no weapon.

So as soon as they were out of sight of the border, they dropped the dope in the brush and high-tailed it north. The next morning, Border Patrol agents found them tromping through the desert and arrested them for illegal entry. Rodolfo spoke on a cell phone from inside the Pecos Criminal Justice Center in Pecos, Texas.

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish)

BURNETT: I told the Border Patrol that we were forced to carry it, Rodolfo said. They told us we were lying. I said, No, I'm telling you the truth. We'll show you. So we took them to the place near the river and the marijuana was still there. Last month, the prosecutor dropped the charges against the pair. Rodolfo and Jose Luis, fearing for their lives, were deported back to Mexico. They asked that their last names not be used for this story.

This is the new calculus for illegal border crossers. They have to deal with criminal syndicates that control all 2,000 miles of the international divide. To them, immigrants are just another income stream. They're robbed, they're kidnapped and their families are extorted, and, increasingly, they're dragooned into helping the gangs. Elizabeth Rogers has been a federal public defender in West Texas for 27 years. Rodolfo and Jose Luis were her clients.

ELIZABETH ROGERS: About a year and a half ago, ourselves as well as our investigators started seeing these clients that would say, I don't care how long I'm going to get, I can't go home. They'll kill me.

BURNETT: It's difficult to say how many cases like this are in federal courts along the border. Rogers says most of her backpacker cases these days claim coercion, and they didn't used to. The individual stories vary, but the common denominator is fear.

ROGERS: And to have grown men, rawboned cowboy guys from Chihuahua, begging for protection from deportation.

BURNETT: In Tucson, criminal defense attorney Raul Miranda says about one-third of his clients these days are telling him they were unwilling drug mules. Most say they were planning to cross the border, but the human smuggler they were dealing with turned out to be a marijuana smuggler.

RAUL MIRANDA: Then they're told by the people who obviously work for the cartels that they have to carry the bundle, and they'll reduce the fee that they're going to have to pay, or they'll forgive the fee. But, you know, the people that are telling them this are armed, and the people feel threatened if they say no.

BURNETT: The identical story is heard 1,000 miles east in Laredo, Texas, where Myrna Montemayor is a federal public defender.

MYRNA MONTEMAYOR: They kind of feel like they don't have a choice because now they've been approached to do this, and you don't really want to say no to people who are committing such violent acts in Mexico.

BURNETT: The Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, where the Pan-American Highway becomes Interstate 35, is a major terminus for drug and human smugglers. Migrants headed north or people just deported from the U.S. end up here at a church-run shelter called Casa del Migrante.

Young men in baseball caps and baggy pants sit at long tables served with bowls of vegetable stew. Fernando is a slight Honduran in his early 20s with thick, kinky hair, wearing a dirty hoodie with a Tasmanian devil on it. He says he's had several run-ins with the violent drug mafia, the Zetas, here on the border.

FERNANDO LUIS: (Speaking Spanish)

BURNETT: Oh yeah, they force you to work for them, and if you tell them you don't want to, they'll kill you. They'll use you as a lookout, or a kidnapper, or to carry drugs north.

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish)

BURNETT: Some people who don't have family to help them join these gangs because it's the only way they can cross the river. I won't work for them. I won't ask the cartel for help. I ask God to help me.

The U.S. justice system is generally skeptical of immigrants who claim the cartel made me do it. One fed-up federal prosecutor, in fact, told a California jury in a cocaine smuggling case, why don't we send a memo and say, dear drug traffickers, when you hire someone to drive a load, tell them that they were forced to do it. Lately, public defenders in border courts have raised this duress claim more and more in attempts to get their clients lower punishment.

But the defense is rarely successful. Rodolfo, the immigrant we heard from at the top of this story, is the exception. Federal agents believed his story only after he volunteered to show them where he dropped the dope. But usually, there's no corroborating evidence, all the judge has is the defendant's word. Robert Pitman is the U.S. attorney for the Western District Texas.

ROBERT PITMAN: I think that no doubt some of them are valid. I think that based on the information that I get, that the vast majority of them are not valid. If you think about it, there are very few things people can say in their defense when they're caught with a load of illegal drugs.

BURNETT: To test the duress claim, federal investigators look at an immigrant's criminal history and they'll interview co-defendants to see if all the stories match up, says Will Glaspy. He's an assistant special agent in charge with the DEA in South Texas.

WILL GLASPY: What we're finding out in our investigations, in a lot of cases, is in fact that's not true. They're just kind of using that as a trendy defense because maybe they think it's going to work.

BURNETT: Their individual stories may or may not be true, but they are entirely plausible. Cartels are targeting immigrants. Defense attorneys in three states interviewed for this report say they are frustrated that the government maintains its longstanding distrust of duress claims, despite the new reality along the U.S.-Mexico border. Marissa Perez-Garcia is branch chief of the public defender's office in Laredo.

MARISSA PEREZ-GARCIA: It's a tough defense because it's another country, and we can't even investigate properly over there. So there's no proof. And that's not to say that they're not true.

BURNETT: One immigrant defendant recently blurted out in a West Texas courtroom, just kill me here so my family can claim my body, because if you send me back, I know the narcos will kill me. John Burnett, NPR News.

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