A former Chula Vista high school student was sentenced Monday to nearly four years in federal prison for recruiting fellow students to act as drug mules and for attempting to smuggle two immigrants across the border in his trunk, authorities said.
Phillip Junior Webb, 20, was arrested in May 2018 after officials caught him trying to smuggle a Chinese woman and Mexican man into the U.S. in the trunk of his Nissan Maxima. Webb, who at the time of his arrest was 18 and attending a charter school in Chula Vista, also was accused of taking part in a large drug smuggling scheme.
Investigators said Webb, a U.S. citizen who lived in Tijuana, was recruiting Castle Park High School classmates to strap methamphetamine and fentanyl to their bodies and walk into the U.S. at the San Ysidro or Otay Mesa ports of entry.
Authorities said the scheme was part of a growing, troubling trend over the past few years in which drug traffickers use high school students to move small loads of narcotics across the border. Authorities say the kids most often recruited are frequent border crossers — typically Mexican citizens with border crossing cards who attend school in the U.S., often in districts near the border.
In fiscal 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials documented 87 incidents of minors trying to smuggle a total of 307 pounds of various narcotics through ports of entry, according to agency records. In fiscal 2017, CBP arrested 84 juveniles for allegedly smuggling narcotics.
Webb pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in July 2018 to one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and one count of bringing in migrants who were not authorized to enter the U.S. for financial gain, according to federal prosecutors.
A judge sentenced Webb on Monday to three years and 10 months in federal prison.
In a criminal complaint filed against Webb last year, five students caught bringing drugs across the border told investigators that they were asked by various friends, including Webb, to smuggle the drugs for a fee of up to $500. One juvenile said he’d smuggled about 20 times.
Two Castle Park students arrested with meth strapped to their thighs in September 2017 told authorities they were among many kids recruited by Webb, according to the complaint. They said that he offered them each $500 to smuggle the drugs and that they had done so successfully on prior occasions. In many cases, records showed Webb had crossed the border within minutes of each of them, the complaint said.
Another student arrested with meth at the border a few weeks later had a similar story, that he’d been recruited by Webb for $300 to $400, with payment at least once being exchanged in a high school bathroom. The teen said he’d tried to get out of it at one point, but Webb pressured him to continue.
“We cannot allow drug cartels to cavalierly recruit our youth to smuggle potent methamphetamine and fentanyl,” U.S. Atty. Robert Brewer Jr. said in a statement. “We will stop this exploitation by bringing the full power of the justice system down on the recruiters who exploit these kids.”
A few weeks before Webb was arrested, a 26-year-old San Diego man was arrested in an unrelated case and accused of recruiting high school students to smuggle drugs across the border. Court records show Alejandro Barba pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Like Webb, he was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison.
Last month, authorities arrested 20-year-old Osvaldo Mendivil Tamayo, a pre-law student at a Tijuana university, and indicted him on charges of conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine, as well as conspiracy to launder money.
Prosecutors allege he was running a drug-smuggling cell that used Mexican teenagers who attend school in San Diego as cross-border couriers, using threats of violence to keep them in check.