“Mom … Ummm, I’m in trouble.”
The skinny teenager’s body is nearly doubled over with stress, his mother’s voice rising with increasing anxiety from the speaker of his cellphone laid out in front of him in a federal interrogation room.
Criminal drug organizations are turning San Diego teenagers into mules, using them to smuggle hard narcotics, even deadly fentanyl, across the border in a trend that is alarming law enforcement authorities.
“Hold on ... What did you do?” his mother squawks into the phone.
“Tell her,” an agent prompts the unidentified youth in a video recording of a real interrogation now played for San Diego students as a warning of the potential consequences.
“So, I went to Mexico and I brought back drugs because I was gonna get paid for it.”
The phone call ends with the mother sobbing: “How could this happen? How could this happen?”
The teenager keeps repeating, “Sorry, mom.”
In recent months, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations arrested four juveniles for allegedly smuggling hard narcotics into the country from Mexico.
“We’ve seen meth, heroin and fentanyl,” said David Shaw, HSI special agent in charge in San Diego. “They’re strapping it right onto their body without properly packaging it. And with fentanyl, a small amount can kill you.”
Last year, border agents arrested seven minors crossing at ports of entry in San Diego County allegedly smuggling fentanyl, a drug so potent that an amount as small as a few grains of salt can be lethal.
Minors were arrested 71 times apparently trying to smuggle meth and seven times in alleged attempts to smuggle in heroin in fiscal year 2018, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection numbers.
“They’re targeting teens because you can lure them a little easier with electronics or money,” Shaw said. “They tell them ‘You get across three times, and you get an iPhone.’”
He said federal authorities are getting some resistance from some local schools they’ve approached about doing education and outreach because of concerns about immigration enforcement.
HSI operates under Immigration and Customs Enforcement but it is a different branch — concerned only with serious criminal investigations, Shaw said. ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, an entirely different division, carries out immigration arrests and deportations.
In June, a majority of the special agents in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division, including Shaw, signed a letter to the Department of Homeland Security saying they want to split off from ICE because of its perceived role in the politics of civil immigration.
Under the Trump administration, the ERO division of ICE has expanded its reach beyond immigration enforcement on serious criminals and national security threats. People have been arrested while at hospitals, dropping their kids off at school and paying traffic fines, leaving Latino and immigrant communities even more distrustful of the agency.
Manny Rubio, spokesman for Sweetwater Union High School District, said district officials were initially cautious about a program that educates youth on heavy topics such as drug cartels and smuggling. He said there was concern about having immigration officers on campus.
“We were a little bit tentative because we wanted to make sure we were protecting students and their parents,” Rubio said.
Rubio said the school district worked with HSI, the U.S. attorney’s office, the Drug Enforcement Administration and CBP and started letting the agencies give the presentation in Sweetwater schools last semester. He said it’s a powerful program that has an impact on the kids.
“At first we were a little bit unsure, but once we got into it, and saw who all the partners are, it’s been a good thing,” said Rubio.
Shastity Urias, the community outreach and prevention coordinator in the U.S. attorney’s office, said one of the purposes is to counteract lies smugglers tell teenagers, including that transporting the drugs is easy and the students won’t be taken into custody if they’re caught.
Urias said the information is helpful for parents and teachers, too, because a smuggler trying to recruit a teen “is more likely to look like their lab partner than a tattooed cartel member.”
Because the goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation and not punishment, sentences for minors convicted of narcotics smuggling can range between 90 days to 480 days, San Diego County Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Loeb said.
She added the group tries to get the teens to think about the long-term consequences, such as having to disclose the information on certain types of job applications in the future, and the decision affecting their college choices.
A conviction could even mean the minor’s entire family loses their eligibility for the SENTRI program, which allows for expedited processing at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sometimes the teenagers don’t know what they are smuggling or realize that fentanyl is so deadly, federal officials said.
“It can be absorbed through the skin and even hurt people standing around them in line if it becomes airborne,” said Shaw.
Linda Dere, HSI’s deputy special agent in charge in San Diego who worked at the border early in her career, said San Diego juveniles engaging in smuggling isn’t a new phenomenon.
“Back in the day, they use to smuggle marijuana. But the part that is so concerning is what they are bringing is now becoming more hazardous,” Dere said.
The presentation has been given in a few schools in the Sweetwater Union School District where federal authorities note students have been targeted for smuggling or arrested in smuggling cases.
It offers students tips, such as hotlines to call and a mobile app where they can anonymously report recruitment attempts, on how to get help if someone approaches them to smuggle drugs.
Shaw would like to expand the program to 61 schools around the county and in other districts.
Wendy Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.