There was no deep undercover operation, no long-term surveillance, no wiretaps that led authorities to Josue Lomeli and his drug-smuggling work.
It was as simple and as obvious as the poorly concealed bulge in the clothes of the teenager who approached the Customs and Border Protection officer assigned to Lane 59 at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Shuttled to a secondary inspection area, the youth — identified in court records as “E.G.” — was asked what he was carrying. In response, he stood up and lifted his shirt, revealing four sealed packages taped to his torso.
The packages contained 2.7 kilos of heroin, nearly six pounds. E.G. told inspectors he had been paid $800 — a fraction of the street value of the narcotics — to carry the drugs across the border.
He said the man who had strapped the packages to his body was standing right behind him in the pedestrian crossing lane when the officer noticed the bulge. After reviewing security camera footage, authorities identified Lomeli. Months later, they arrested him when he again appeared at the port of entry.
All they see is the immediate gratification of the money. There is no appreciation for the long-term collateral consequences.
Lomeli eventually admitted he had taped drugs to at least six people, including two juveniles. Last week, four years after E.G. was caught, Lomeli stood in front of U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff and was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison.
Drugs flow across the U.S. border by land, sea and air, in underground tunnels, hidden in cars, packed inside toys and construction materials — and strapped to the bodies of willing youths tempted by the promise of ready cash and the reality that, if caught, their age would mean they would not be harshly sentenced.
Lomeli’s case, Huff said, was a chilling example of a long-running phenomenon of using minors as “body carriers” for narcotics.
Several years ago, alarmed by a jump in arrests of minors caught at the border, authorities embarked on a program of visiting high schools in San Diego and Imperial counties to warn of the dangers and long-term consequences of smuggling drugs.
It appears to have had some effect, according to statistics from Customs and Border Protection.
In 2013, there were 118 youths caught smuggling marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine through the San Diego sector, an area that covers the six official ports of entry from San Ysidro east to Andrade in Imperial County, as well as the airport and seaport.
The education and outreach program began in 2013. By the next year, the number of youths caught had dropped to 63. It rose slightly to 70 in 2015. Through May this year, some 24 minors have been caught, agency figures show.
The decline can be attributed to many factors, such as tighter border security, although the numbers only show those caught — not those who likely are still getting through.
While acknowledging the drop, authorities said the problem persists.
“Unfortunately, it’s something we still do see often,” said Sidney Aki, the port director at San Ysidro, the busiest land border crossing in the world.
Drug gangs target youths who can legally cross the border because they are U.S. citizens who may live in Tijuana and go to school in the United States, or have a border crossing card. They are paid no more than a few hundred dollars, which seems like big money to teenagers, Aki said.
If they’re caught, minors aren’t prosecuted in federal court but are sent to state juvenile court, usually charged with possession of drugs for sale. San Diego County Deputy Dist. Atty. Dwain Woodley said that in the last month, his office has filed drug-smuggling cases against five minors.
The youths, mostly first-time offenders, likely won’t receive a lengthy sentence, he said.
“This is not an offense that warrants someone getting sent to the Division of Juvenile Justice,” he said, referring to the state youth detention system.
The outreach program that visits high schools emphasizes that there are serious consequences to smuggling, even for youth, Assistant U.S. Atty. Sherri Walker Hobson said.
That includes being deported if not a citizen or losing a visa that allows entry to the United States. Longer-term effects for citizens include losing the right to vote, affecting certain professional licenses or even losing eligibility for some federal benefits, she said.
“All they see is the immediate gratification of the money,” she said. “There is no appreciation for the long-term collateral consequences.”
The education program intensified in late 2013 when a Tijuana teenager died. The youth was carrying two bottles of a dark-colored liquid and after telling inspectors it was juice, voluntarily took a small sip.
He fell violently ill a short time later and died. The bottles contained liquid methamphetamine, authorities said.
The smuggling incident involving E.G. occurred in July 2012, and Lomeli was charged in November of that year. According to court records, federal agents offered him a chance to be released if he agreed to cooperate.
When he was released, Lomeli — a U.S. citizen — fled to Mexico. It was not until May 31, 2015, that he was again arrested at the San Ysidro crossing. He had been stabbed by rival drug traffickers, and his mother had loaded him into an ambulance in Tijuana and shipped him to the port, where as a citizen he would get medical care, court records show.
What happened to E.G. isn’t known because juvenile records are sealed.
Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.