On May 9, a 15-year-old girl walked into Arizona through the San Luis port of entry, near Yuma, with 5 pounds of marijuana strapped around her belly.
She got busted by Customs and Border Protection officers.
Later that same day, a 16-year-old boy tried the same thing with 2 pounds of cannabis taped to his legs. He, too, was arrested.
The marijuana, with a combined street value of $72,000, was confiscated.
The juveniles – both U.S. citizens – were turned over to police.
But others keep taking their place.
In the past two years, Homeland Security officials have witnessed a disturbing development along the Mexican border: kid smugglers.
“It’s going up,” said Michael Lowrie, a public-affairs agent for the U.S. Border Patrol. “Not a whole lot, but more than we’ve seen in, well, pretty much ever.”
The Border Patrol does not keep data on juvenile drug runners caught trying to sneak into Arizona through the desert and mountains. But Customs and Border Protection records show 130 minors were caught attempting to bring drugs through entry ports from Sonora into Arizona during fiscal 2009, an 83 percent increase over the previous year.
Teresa Small, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman in San Luis, said narcotics organizations – always on the lookout for ways to penetrate increasing border security – are recruiting American teens with claims that they won’t face major punishment if they are caught.
“Drug-trafficking organizations lead them to believe they will not have a substantial sentence,” Small said. “But they’re actually telling them a lie.”
In fact, prison terms are not uncommon for teen smugglers.
The problem escalated last year to a point where federal and local authorities created programs to warn Yuma County students about the dangers and consequences of drug smuggling. The federal campaign includes a presentation by border agents and a video with arrest re-enactments.
Meanwhile, a mock-sentencing program created by the Yuma County Superior Court has been presented at San Luis High School and a local after-school jobs center. Judge Maria Elena Cruz said she has noticed a surge of young smugglers who are stunned when she orders them incarcerated.
Cruz said her presentation, featuring a real prosecutor and defense attorney, ends with a teenager sentenced to prison. “We had parents and juveniles crying,” she added. “It was very, very effective.”
Small said most of the youthful offenders are Americans with family members in Mexico. She said port officers generally refer suspects to local authorities for prosecution under Arizona law, rather than to the federal justice system.
“One thing for sure: They will get the hardest punishment possible,” Small said.
Lowrie said cartels may be recruiting juveniles because the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona has cracked down on so-called drug mules, low-level couriers who try to smuggle narcotics through ports or carry loads through the backcountry. Until prosecutorial staffing was beefed up recently, those runners were not charged federally unless they were caught with hundreds of pounds of marijuana.
Roger Nelson, chief deputy for criminal cases at the Yuma County Attorney’s Office, said young smugglers face a strong likelihood of prison time.
Virtually all 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults, he said, as are many 15- and 16-year-olds. Importation of drugs is a Class 2 felony that carries a presumptive sentence of five years. In plea agreements, Nelson said, prosecutors often reduce the charge to attempted importation, a Class 3 felony that carries a presumptive sentence of 3 1/2 years but allows for probation.
Nelson said juvenile defendants who strap small amounts of marijuana to their bodies sometimes are granted probation, but those who drive into inspection stations with larger loads often wind up behind bars.
Yuma County prosecutors handled 22 cases in 2009 and 15 during the first five months of this year.
Juvenile cases in federal court are confidential, so limited information is available on the fate of defendants there.
Shelley Clemens, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Tucson, said a child convicted of delinquency in the federal system may be incarcerated for a maximum of five years, or until age 21.
Although most of the juvenile smugglers are American citizens, Clemens said those referred for federal prosecution usually are Mexican nationals who quickly plead guilty. After conviction and completion of court-imposed sentences, she said, they are deported.
Still, the cases pile up.
On June 24, Customs and Border Protection reported, a 16-year-old American boy was arrested at the San Luis port of entry with cocaine taped to his leg. Two days later, a 17-year-old Douglas girl, also a U.S. citizen, was caught trying to smuggle a purse full of bullets southbound into Mexico, where firearms and ammunition are outlawed.
“They think they’re going to get away with it or get a slap on the wrist,” Lowrie said. “It’s a growing trend.”