SAN LUIS, Arizona — Customs officers in southwestern Arizona are catching more school-aged teenagers smuggling fentanyl through the San Luis border crossing, prompting schools to renew warnings to students about the risks associated with narcotics trafficking.
Cartels recruiting teenagers with U.S. ties to smuggle hard drugs into the country is not a new phenomenon, said John Schwamm, the port director for the two border crossings between the sister cities of San Luis, Arizona, and San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora.
But the problem has been “perpetually growing,” he said, especially when it comes to fentanyl.
The powerful narcotic is nearly 100 times more potent that morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it very lucrative for the cartels.
It is also deadly; minuscule amounts can lead to an overdose.
“Before we would see one case, maybe, in five months, or two cases in five months. Now … I’m going to say we’re seeing three to four cases,” he said.
The Tucson field office for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations, which oversees legal border crossings along the entire Arizona-Mexico border, said it hasn’t seen any increases in teenagers smuggling fentanyl statewide.
Still, the prevalence of this drug at the U.S.-Mexico border has raised warning signs. The Arizona-Sonora corridor is a key smuggling corridors. Fentanyl seizures are highest along the Arizona border.
In fiscal year 2019, customs officers at the state’s six border crossings seized a whopping 825 pounds of fentanyl. So far this year, they’ve netted an additional 112 pounds, the Office of Field Operations said.
The latter amount is enough to kill more than 25 million people, based on lethal dose calculations used by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
The Yuma Union High School District, and especially San Luis High School, which is located about three miles from the port of entry, is keenly aware about the potential for their students to get caught up.
They’ve been working with local courts and law enforcement for years, taking proactive steps to warn students about those risks. But now, there placing an especially large emphasis on fentanyl.
Cartels are recruiting teenagers
As in many dynamic, binational communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, the main crossing in San Luis includes hundreds, if not thousands, of school children and teenagers commuting back and forth daily.
The minors, both boys and girls, are targeted for recruitment by the cartels, Schwamm said.
“… I’m talking from as young as 14-15 years of age to 17-18 years of age,” he said.
In a September incident, a 17-year-old attempted to walk back from Mexico into Arizona through the San Luis port of entry. The customs officer who processed the teen referred him to another officer for additional questioning.
After a canine officer alerted officers to the presence of drugs, another customs officer searched the teenager. They found a package of fentanyl pills weighing about one pound strapped to his crotch.
The fentanyl pills had an estimated street value of $9,100, according to Border Patrol officials in San Luis. Federal officials referred him for prosecution. The Yuma County Attorney’s Office has taken the case.
John Smith has served as the county attorney since 2005. Typically, when federal officials decline to prosecute teenagers, their cases land with the state and local jurisdictions, he said.
A decade ago, Smith’s office saw a large uptick in the prosecution of teenagers caught smuggling drugs — mostly marijuana at that time. It was driven in large part, he said, by a false assumption the cartels used to recruit them.
“The thought was back then … was that ‘Don’t worry about it, if you get caught, you’re a juvenile they won’t charge you,'” he said.
Prosecutions fell in the following years, after Smith’s office partnered with the school and other law enforcement in the Yuma area to reach out to students and parents. Smith said the prosecutions of teens by his office are far less now than a decade ago.
Schools, prosecutors team up to warn kids
The outreach continues, revamped to reflect the dangers and risks associated with smuggling or using fentanyl.
Eric Patten, Yuma Union High School District spokesman, said the district regularly partners with law-enforcement agencies to talk directly with students at their five high schools.
That includes bringing in Border Patrol agents to give presentations on drug- and human-trafficking to freshmen health classes at San Luis High School, the school closest to the border.
For the past two years, the district has also held workshops for parents and students at San Luis High School to talk specifically about fentanyl and drug-trafficking. Those will be held on an annual basis, especially with new cohorts of students coming into the high school, Patten said.
The parent workshops have included broad swaths of the community, including local law enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency and even judges who could end up prosecuting students caught smuggling.
The workshops have been successful in raising awareness among parents. And they help deliver am important message, Patten said.
“This starts at home,” he said.
“… This isn’t just the school’s problem. It isn’t the police’s problem. It’s a home problem. It’s a health problem. It’s a socioeconomic problem. There’s a lot of factors that go into it needing to be solved,” Patten added.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona also has an ambitious outreach program to talk about the dangers of fentanyl use and smuggling. The office is taking it statewide, not just focusing on border communities.
Karina Bland: I still have to talk to my kid about drugs, even though he’s not a kid anymore
Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Sechrist said officials have given presentations to more than 13,000 students around Arizona so far, with presentations to 7,000 more students coming in the weeks ahead. Their goal is to reach 100,000 high school students in Arizona by this time next year.
“We are very aware about how insidious this drug is, which is why we’re spending so much time trying to get that message out to the high schools,” Sechrist said.
The presentations use real-life examples of prosecutions and overdose deaths, some with graphic photos, to better inform students about the dangers and consequences.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office decides whether to prosecute teenagers caught smuggling on a case-by-case basis, Sechrist said.
“We don’t actually want to have to prosecute anybody,” she said. “We’d rather have no smuggling through the ports of entry, much less with the use of juveniles and a substance as dangerous as fentanyl. You know, you can touch it and it can kill you.”
Have any news tips or story ideas about the U.S.-Mexico border? Reach the reporter at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.