Minors being recruited to carry drugs across border
Police launch campaign to prevent youth from being targeted
SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO, Son. — “Don’t take chances, don’t let them deceive you.”
That’s the message in flyers that police here have been handing out to children and teens who cross the border each morning to attend schools in San Luis, Ariz.
The reference is to traffickers who recruit minors to carry across drugs concealed in their backpacks, strapped to their bodies or otherwise concealed in the folds of their clothing.
The Municipal Police Department in San Luis Rio Colorado and other law enforcement agencies launched the campaign last month, and this week officers were back at the border passing out the fliers to youths lining up to cross the border through the pedestrian lanes at the U.S. Port of Entry.
Joining them on Tuesday was David Lara, a member of the Yuma Union High School District governing board, who said school officials and police in the Yuma area need to do more on their side of the border to prevent minors from being used as “mules” to carry across drugs.
“This is to bring attention (to the fact) that the city of San Luis Rio Colorado is acting on a problem that affects (both sides of the border),” Lara said. “But we don’t see any action from the American side. This is, again, a call for our officials to do something also.”
In an interview, Lara said drug traffickers are exploiting a loophole that allows children in San Luis Rio Colorado to come across the border to attend school in San Luis, Ariz. In a “handful” of cases, families in Mexico pay tuition for their children to be able to attend school in YUHSD or in the Gadsden Elementary School District, he said.
But in many more cases, students who actually declare residency in San Luis Rio Colorado the two school districts because adults living in those districts claim guardianship of the minors, Lara said. In still other cases, he added, adults are claiming power of attorney for the minors.
The traffickers, said Lara, are exploiting that loophole to recruit minors to carry drugs with them when they commute across the border.
Lara said John Schwamm, U.S. port of entry director in San Luis, provided some enlightenment about the problem several months ago when he spoke at a meeting of the Yuma County Republican Party that Lara attended.
“Methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine is what we have been told are the most common (drugs) found in the backpacks or inside the student’s’ clothing,” Lara said, “and in many cases it has occurred with the involvement of their own parents.”
He added: “The question is, do we have to wait for something serious to happen to act on the American side? These are very small children who are being exposed to many risks when crossing the border alone.”
As long as juveniles are otherwise eligible enter the United States, U.S. ports of entry don’t stop them from crossing the border on the basis of age, said Teresa Small, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
She said CBP has been able to reduce the incidence of juvenile smuggling through Operation Detour, a program launched in 2009
to send CBP and Border Patrol officers to schools near the border to talk to students about the dangers of being recruited by drug traffickers.
Lara said he’s getting involved in the issue “as a citizen concerned by the problem.” But during Wednesday’s meeting of the high school district governing board, he asked the issue be placed on a future agenda for discussion.
He said officials in the Gadsden district, which covers San Luis, Ariz., and neighboring Gadsden, also need to be concerned about the issue.
Luis Marquez, a president of the Gadsden governing board and also police officer in San Luis, Ariz., said the elementary school district has not ignored the issue.
“The issue is discussed in meetings with parents and in other events,” Marquez said, “but in reality it’s been noted that the majority of students who are used (for drug smuggling) are mostly above the eighth grade. It’s not a big program in the elementary or junior high schools — but yes, the (Gadsden) district is taking action.”
And, Marquez said, it’s not up to the schools alone to fix the problem.
“It’s good that someone on the high school governing board is getting involved in that issue, but it’s only the schools’ responsibility; parents and the community in general have to get involved.”