Mexican drug cartels, in a disturbing new trend, are luring young people from Southern California to smuggle drugs across the border and carry out other illicit work for the criminal enterprises, according to law enforcement officials and youth activists.
The result: More than 5,000 young people, most of them Latinos, have been held in San Diego County jails over the last two years, according to KPBS San Diego.
Many of the young people were involved in street gangs, making them easier to recruit, and the crimes that landed them behind bars included assaults, robbery, drug trafficking or consumption. Their proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border made it easier for them to fall prey to the advances of the Mexican drug cartels.
Many times, children as young as 11 years old, who are referred to as the "The expendables," according to The National Post, are recruited to smuggle drugs across the border because it is believed they'll attract less law enforcement attention than adults.
Children can earn up to $400 per trip smuggling drugs across the border, according to Pedro Ríos, an activist with the San Diego office of the American Friends Service Committee. He added that young people also are recruited by human traffickers to escort undocumented immigrants from the border to safe houses.
A report by the The Children's Rights Network in Mexico estimates that 30,000 Mexicans under the age of 18 are in the employ of Mexico's numerous drug cartels.
The report,published in Spanish, said that children and adolescents working with drug cartels are part of every stage on the drug trafficking process, from street sales to the smuggling and distribution.
"Children are involved in various forms including drug trafficking, kidnappings, extorsions, smuggling, piracy, corruptions, etc...The youngest ones work as vigilantes and the older ones work with the drug trafficking. Once they are 16 years old, they are usually hired as paid assassins. Girls are usually involved with the drug packaging."
"Cartels use these juveniles, telling them, 'Nothing is going to happen to you because you're a juvenile. Here's some quick cash,'" said Angelica De Cima, a U.S. Customs spokeswoman, according to Sign On San Diego News. "These kids are putting themselves at risk and they don't understand the consequences."
Many of the young offenders, when caught, face punishment ranging from probation to 15 months in a juvenile camp. Some who are legal permanent residents but not U.S. citizens can be deported.
"The recruitment of children and adolescents can be explained, in part because children under 14 have constitutional immunity against being held criminally responsible for their actions, even for the crimes of murder, kidnapping and torture," according to Borderland Beat blog.
The issue of youth involvement with the cartels got attention last year when Edgar Jimenez Lugo, 14, of San Diego, was accused of murder. He was convicted of homicide in July and sentenced to three years in prison in Mexico, according to MSNBC. The San Diego native was captured in December 2010 as he was boarding a plane to Tijuana. He was believed to work for the Beltran Leyva brothers' drug organization outside Mexico City, according to MSNBC.
Although the recruiting of young people in the U.S. by the Mexican cartels was largely confined to neighborhoods closest to the border, U.S. officials say the criminal groups are expanding their recruiting efforts further north, according to Fronteras. Jose Garcia, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said places such Encanto, University Heights and Logan Heights in San Diego have become targets.
For some young people on both sides of the border, there is a certain allure to working for drug cartels. Some are drawn by the idea of being part of a group, others by the notion of being outlaws. "They seek the money. The thrill is a big portion of it. It's counterculture to them," said Garcia, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.
Former San Diego U.S. Attorney Karen Hewitt told the Sign On San Diego News that these young people were easy targets because "they are available, they are susceptible and unfortunately if they have no other support system, it is tempting to turn to all the cartels offer them."