In 2008, within 24 hours, five teenagers were apprehended at the San Ysidro Port in San Diego, Calif., and the Calexico Port in Imperial Valley, Calif. Each of them had narcotics strapped to their torsos and legs. Drug smuggling organizations had enlisted the teens' assistance in smuggling narcotics into the United States.This, unfortunately, was not an isolated incident. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents learned that recruiters for drug smuggling organizations were frequenting school grounds, luring students with cash payments. To seal the deal, recruiters told the students that nothing could happen to them.
They would say, "Worst case scenario, they'll take the drugs from you and you'll be turned over to your parents," said Millie Jones, San Diego's assistant special agent in charge. "These kids are not aware of the consequences."
Representatives from ICE HSI and their counterparts at the San Diego Police Department launched an outreach campaign to tackle this growing situation. To date, ICE has made presentations at 24 locations, including community centers, high schools, middle schools and charter schools. Five additional presentations are scheduled this spring.
The presentations focus on the facts. Minors can receive felony convictions. A conviction like that can follow a teenager for the rest of his/her life. The presentation also includes a video featuring two convicted drug smugglers sharing their personal experiences. Smuggling does not equate to "quick and easy" money.
Agents warn that teens between the ages of 13 and 18 are the typical recruits and are primarily asked to smuggle marijuana or methamphetamine into the country. In some instances, however, teenagers have been caught with heroin or cocaine taped to their bodies.
Agents say the program is working. Teen smuggling arrests have significantly declined in the first quarter of 2011. But agents note that their work isn't complete. It's an ongoing process.
"If we can convince at least one kid not to smuggle drugs, that's one kid we won't have to encounter at the ports of entry," said Jones.