When Border Patrol agents working an Arizona immigration checkpoint discovered a teenage boy smuggling meth into the US in early February, it pointed to a disturbing trend as he was the second teenage drug smuggler caught at the checkpoint that week.
Drug cartels in Mexico are increasingly focusing their recruitment on younger and younger Americans.
The 18-year-old male, a lawful permanent resident of the US, driving his father’s car, was stopped at the Interstate 19 checkpoint near Amado in Santa Cruz County.
Agents found 40 packages of meth, weighing approximately 45 pounds, concealed inside the vehicle’s door and quarter panels. The narcotics have an estimated street value of $45,000.
He was arrested and turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The numbers speak for themselves. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates on a fiscal year running from October, and in 2018 a total of 36 children were arrested for entering the country with narcotics just in Arizona. This rose to 57 in 2019, and five months in fiscal year 2020 the number stands at 17.
Children older than 14 can be charged as adults with a class two felony such as smuggling narcotics.
What CBP officials have realised is that while drug education programmes such as DARE and Operation Detour are taught in middle schools and high schools, it became apparent that education at a younger age was needed.
“We went out to local high schools and I noticed that students were already recruited at that point,” says Mr Regalado.
To combat cartel recruitment early on, CBP educates children and their families through TEAM Kids and the Parent Symposium. These programmes focus on the signs of criminal exploitation as well as the dangers and consequences of becoming involved with smugglers.
They warn students that cartel recruitment happens through social media, video games and word of mouth. Teens, attracted by the money or by thinking it’s “cool” can end up smuggling drugs in vehicles, on their body, or in their body.
“There’s kids now being recruited in Phoenix, Tucson, not only for northbound activity but also southbound, where they are taking weapons from the United States into Mexico,” Mr Regalado notes. “It’s not just the narcotics coming from Mexico into the United States.”
The intention is to increase awareness and to provide families resources they can use to avoid becoming victimised by cartels. A recent parent symposium attracted 400 people in Phoenix.
It is hoped that the programmes will expand across Arizona and eventually the whole of the southwestern US.