We begin with an important border issue you probably don’t know much about. Under longstanding federal policy, when underage kids are caught smuggling drugs from Mexico into the U.S., they’re usually let go with no consequences. Not surprisingly, that’s prompted Mexico’s drug cartels to increasingly rely on children to move their illegal products. Sometimes, the children are brutalized. Today’s cover story is how one border county has gotten creative to interrupt the destructive dynamic. A note: some of the images are graphic.
You’ve seen the pictures of smugglersso called human “mules” transporting illegal drugs across the border from Mexico into the U.S. What you may not realize is how many of them are high school-aged teens. The smuggler here was 17 when he was caught. These two young drug smugglers, also 17. One of the smugglers seen here carrying a giant bale of marijuana age 16.
Brian: Border Patrol members of the local stations approached me with a particular problem they had, which was with juveniles being used by the cartel to smuggle large quantities of drugs into the United States.
Sharyl: What kind of drugs?
Brian: Most often it was marijuana. But when I say large quantities, we're talking about loads in a group of 240 to 320 pounds.
Brian McIntyre is the lead prosecutor in Cochise County, Arizona which borders Mexico.
Sharyl: And they're using the same juveniles over and over again, you would see them?
Brian: Yeah. And the problem that Border Patrol had is that they were getting three and four time offenders who were never having any consequences imposed upon them. As a result, they're becoming basically professional drug mules and becoming very familiar with the routes in Cochise county. Very familiar with the operation of Border Patrol and what routes to exploit. And just getting better and better.
Sharyl: Why were there no consequences for juveniles who were moving drugs across the border?
Brian: So at the time, the federal government, and still to this day, didn't have a good mechanism to deal with individuals who were between the ages of 14 and 18 who were committing criminal offenses. And so essentially it was, you might catch them on day one, but they had to be immediately returned, and then you can catch them on day two again.
The drug cartels are infamous for targeting recruits at scandalously young ages. One boy who started moving dope at age 15 grew up to become one of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords, El Chapo. He’s now serving a life sentence in U.S. prison. It’s estimated the cartels have recruited tens of thousands of children as young as age 12. Captured juveniles told police they were paid up to $500 per double bundle backpack of marijuana.
In 2015, officials in Cochise County, Arizona a hot spot for smuggling decided to try something new to stop it.
Brian: So after a series of meetings, we worked with the Cochise County Sheriff's Department and Border Patrol, Douglas Police Department, Bisbee Police Department, and came up with a plan. And unlike other operations that get conducted that require Congressional approval and a whole lot of paper, we did it on a handshake. And what we agreed was that local law enforcement would go down and take the case from Border Patrol anytime a juvenile was involved. So what that might mean is, we have a group of five individuals and there's one juvenile. Now we're going to take all five individuals, all five packs and process all of them through our state system, through our county.
The handshake launched “Operation Immediate Consequences.” Any time Border Patrol picked up a juvenile in Cochise County, the sheriff’s office agreed to take over the whole case and prosecute, including any adults the group.
Right away, teen drug smugglers started filling space in Cochise County’s small jail.
Sheriff Mark Dannels: So in my jail next door here we went from one or two remanded juveniles, to 36— was the average daily population for juveniles that were remanded for drugs. That's an epidemic. In a rural county, that's an epidemic, and it showed you what the cartel was doing to exploit these kids. Brian: In the first six months we had 36 juveniles apprehended. That's, that's a huge number for a small county, we're a county of maybe 130,000 people.
Sharyl: And you prosecuted all of them?
Brian: And we prosecuted all of them.
In addition to strict enforcement, the county started “Operation Detour” in border schools where smugglers recruit kids. The mission is to send the message that in this county, at least, juveniles will be prosecuted. As part of the program, students are shown gruesome photos of what can happen to them if they get mixed up with cartels.
Brian: A 15 year old male who reported to the port of entry in Douglas and he was asking for asylum, but really he was just asking for protection. And what had happened with him was he got scared, he got spooked while attempting to mule a load, dropped the pack and crossed back into Mexico. The cartel individuals responsible for that load got to him, and they beat his entire backside off with a two by four. That was his consequence for failing to deliver. And that's why he was asking for protection. There's a video which was posted by the Sinaloa Cartel to show people what happens to you if you don't do the cartel's bidding.
Cochise County officials had no idea what the impact would be after that first six months when they arrested 36 juveniles.
Sharyl: What has happened to the juveniles you've seen come into this county moving drugs since word's gotten out about your prosecution?
Brian: Our initial six months figure looked pretty much the same the second six months. Then it began to decline. And then looking into about two years into the program, we were down to 20. Three years into the program, we were down to 10.
As for 2019, They say they have arrested just two juveniles for smuggling. They credit the significant drop to the fact that their new reputation has spread among the bad guys south of the border.
Dannels: If you smuggle drugs in my county, there's a 100% chance that when we get you, you're going to prison.
Sharyl: You have 100% conviction rate?
Dannels: We have 100% conviction rate, and the cartels know that. They know that.
It’s not been an easy road. “Operation Immediate Consequences” has drawn plenty of attention and criticism along the way.
Dannels: My own court system told me that they didn't want to take these cases in my county. I'll say to you what I said to them, "I didn't know you had a choice. You're trier of facts. I didn't know you had a choice." And they backed off on that. Now people were saying, and this is where the pressure came, "Sheriff, this is cruel. These are kids." No, these were vulnerable kids that were exploited by a cartel that don't care about these kids. They're safer in my hands where they get education, they get counseling, they get health, they get good meals, and hopefully they get some structure in their life when they get out in a year and a half that they see life different. That's our goal.
It’s too soon to know for sure, they say. But in a drug war that’s been marred by too many losses one county hopes they’ve scored a rare win.
Operation Immediate Consequences has only seen two juvenile repeat offenders in the last four years.