NOGALES, AZ (ABC News 15) – The U.S demand for drugs is a highly profitable business, with Americans reportedly spending about $150 billion in 2016 on drugs like cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine.
“We have 11- and 12-year-old kids already being approached to smuggle narcotics. There is no age limit for this, cartels will look for those more vulnerable and the first opportunity they have, they’ll take it,” said Alan Regalado with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
ABC15 investigators exposed the newest tactic from drug cartels in Arizona: recruiting kids as young as 11 years old, from all walks of life and backgrounds, to smuggle drugs for the cartel.
“They are using females more than males, even Caucasian females and males, to do the transshipment of narcotics,” said Raul Rodriguez, a detective for the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office.
Rodriguez said cartels are running out of teens to recruit in the Nogales metro area, so now they are recruiting in places where no one expects them. He says cartels use social media, video games, word of mouth, or trips to Mexico as some of the paths to recruitment.
“A kid from Glendale, Peoria, Mesa can come down here with friends or relatives. They said they are just going to spend the day and go back, but within a couple of hours they are recruited,” said Rodriguez.
“The community needs to know, the community needs to do something about it,” said Alan Regalado, spokesperson for the Tucson sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“We’ve had young people from this community being arrested near the border for smuggling reasons,” said Regalado. He added that the spike in the number of Valley children busted for smuggling is alarming.
According to CBP, between 2017 and 2018, more than 300 kids have been picked up for smuggling humans or drugs. They say drugs are in their vehicles, taped to their bodies, swallowed or stuffed into body cavities.
“(If) one of those packages ruptures, that juvenile can die,” said Santa Cruz County Attorney George Silva.
ABC15 investigators interviewed a Valley mother who believes her son was recruited by cartel members.
“I found five assault rifles and a bulletproof vest. I thought I was going to die, I panicked,” said “Alicia.”
ABC15 has agreed to not reveal Alicia’s identity for fear of retaliation.
Alicia thinks her son was recruited by the cartel to store their guns, saying, “They’re using my son. He wasn’t like that.”
She said her son’s behavior changed and she was afraid of him, and for him. She reported him to police.