Many of them aren't old enough to drive -- but they're old enough to carry drugs into our country.
There's a startling trend among young teens: they're trying to smuggle drugs into the U.S. at the request of powerful Mexican drug cartels. KTLA went south to the border for a special investigation into TEEN DRUG MULES.
At the Port of Entry in San Ysidro California, 100,000 people cross the border from Mexico every day. Many of them are teenagers. And this year more than ever, border agents have their eyes on teens as possible drug mules.
"In the 5 months between March and July there were 238 body carries that we caught here at San Ysidro," Port Director Oscar Preciado told KTLA, "And of those, 67 were kids under 18 years old."
Preciado says the teens are hired by powerful Mexican drug cartels. They're offered quick cash...to take a dangerous stroll across the border.
"They strap the drugs either to their legs, their back, their chest, groin area. Anywhere they can tape them, they'll tape them," Preciado says. "We've found mostly marijuana, but we have found heroin, methamphetamines, and some cocaine."
But why use kids? Michele Linley, Chief of the San Diego District Attorney's Juvenile Division, says drug lords can make the teens believe it'll be a breeze. "Lots of times they're told nothing will happen to you, it's not a big deal, you're a juvenile, nobody will do anything to you," Linley says. "They just think that it's not a big deal."
Public Defender David Lamb says for the teens, the lure of quick cash is irresistible. "A 15, 16 year old kids is offered 5, 6, 7 hundred dollars -- that's a lot of money!" Lamb says. "And they're given promises, assurances it's going to be an easy task to do."
During our KTLA investigation, we encountered San Diego-area teens -- whose identities we'll protect -- with friends who had worked as drug mules.
"They would go to Tijuana, they would get the drugs and they would put them to their stomachs, they would tape them to their legs, and everything," one teen told us, demonstrating where the teens hid the drugs.
Another teen explained, "They would just ask me if I wanted to make money, and they would ask me if I would carry, and I was like, 'I'm not trying to get involved with that.'" The teen told us they'd offer her thousands of dollars to carry, but she declined.
And a third teen said the drug smugglers would offer 'perks' as well as cash. "Let's say you want a motorcycle, they'll go get you a motorcycle, and they'll give you like 2 grand, or 3 grand, but you have to cross through with the drugs."
A student smuggling drugs may think he's a big man on campus -- but authorities want teens to know that it's a serious crime with a high price to pay.
Deputy D.A. Linley says busted teen drug mules start with time in Juvenile Hall. "We have local programs here that go up to a year in custody that they could be placed in. Plus, you're going to have to pay fines, you're going to have to do community service, possibly public works service."
And at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Agent-in-Charge Jose Garcia says a single drug arrest can follow a teenager for a lifetime. "You're talking about two felony counts on your record, possession plus smuggling across the federal border. So that's going to affect your career in the future, it's going to affect your ability to get into certain schools."
For teens at the border, and at a crossroads in their young lives, the message from authorities is clear. "Don't do it," Linley warns. "It's a crime, and there are consequences, no matter what they tell you. You're running drugs for people who have no morals whatsoever."
Port Director Preciado echoes the same sentiments. "Why ruin the rest of your life for 200 dollars?
Because this is going to follow them, for ever and ever, it's not going to go away."
Teen Drug Mules
Teen Drug Mules