(NewsNation) — Drug cartels are making their way into high schools along the U.S.-Mexico border in a new way, by targeting average teens to smuggle drugs.
In San Diego County, home to the busiest border crossing in the world, a spike in the number of teens caught smuggling drugs led to an innovative program now being replicated by other border communities. It works by targeting students where they spend the majority of their time: school.
“Kids would be recruited by (their) lab partner at school,” said Cindy Cipriani, Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of California. “What we found is that kids were being targeted who were economically vulnerable — who perhaps there isn’t a secure residence, there isn’t secure food on the table. And you find that it’s really hard for them to say no.”
Cipriani was a key member of an effort that also included school districts, community groups, Border Patrol, the FBI and a number of other organizations.
One of the hot spots for the cartel’s recruitment centers is in southern San Diego county — an area abutting Tijuana, Mexico, and where many teens are frequent border crossers.
“We might have some families where the youth has been born and raised and is a U.S. citizen but perhaps a parent had been deported,” said Mandy Miscevic, program director for SBCS, a nonprofit offering services for at-risk teens who was a part of the prevention effort. “We also have families who … due to the increased economic costs of living … had to relocate across the border.”
Cipriani’s team would present at area high schools, educating on what and how cartels were targeting teens — and what it would mean to get caught.
“The crux was really the cartels, the people who are recruiting you, are not going to tell you the truth about what the consequences are,” Cipriani said. “They’ll tell you, ‘They’re just going to take the drugs and let you go.’ That isn’t true.”
Even under age, teens can still face charges and be put on probation that affects their ability to finish high school, get a scholarship to college, or enter the military, she said. And their entire family may lose the ability to cross the border frequently or easily.
But the most impactful part of the presentation was the testimony of an 18-year-old who was preparing to go to college on a football scholarship. To begin the presentation, students see a video of him calling his mom after being questioned by agents.
“His mom was on disability … and he felt like a need to provide for all the costs of college that weren’t going to be covered by his scholarship,” Cipriani said. “Even though I’ve seen that video probably 20 to 30 times, I still get choked up.”
At the end of the presentation, he comes out in person to speak with the students, to “hear from him how much and how scary it was to be put in jail … how it affected his life opportunities, and how sorry he was that he’d made that choice — just had a huge emotional impact.”
After this presentation, students were more likely to say they “believed smuggling is not worth the risk and consequences” (85%) and “know the best way to respond” to recruitment (76%), according to survey results provided by the office of the US Attorney, Southern District of California.
The program also tried to address the economic needs for why students may make the choice in the first place — including connecting them to community resources if their families needed food or were homeless.
“(Cartels) are preying on who might look like your average kid, who just happened to be coming from families with extreme financial stressors or poverty,” Miscevic said.
The efforts also included billboards in Spanish and English along the border, as well as classes provided by SBCS to teach parents about the risk for their kids.
The program won an award from the Department of Justice in 2019, and Cipriani says several other jurisdictions along the border are considering similar plans in their communities.
Cipriani also notes that the number of minors caught smuggling drugs has fallen from its height of just under 120 minors in 2018, to less than 30 in 2022. While pandemic restrictions in border crossings likely plays a part in that, Cipriani says the message is getting out.
Cipriani says her office is ramping up to repeat the program at all of the area high schools, as many of the kids who heard it the first time have graduated.