Recently, the drug cartels have taken to placing ads in the newspaper to find drivers to transport drugs across the border into the U.S. Ads that say things like “Would you like to work in San Diego?” or “A company that is a leader in its field is looking for male employees.” may seem innocuous to the casual reader, but these job offers come with a major hitch: smuggling narcotics.
The scenario has become increasingly familiar to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings. Over the past year, more than three dozen drivers caught with drug loads claimed that they had answered want ads, and were simply complying with their new employer’s request that they drive a vehicle across the border.
“It’s all centered around employment,” said Lester Hayes, a group supervisor for ICE Homeland Security Investigations at the San Ysidro border crossing. “We see hard-working people that are just trying to provide for their families who get caught up in this game.”
The drug cartels are clever in the presentation of these positions, calling some of these positions “cleaning positions”. The drivers are men and women, typically ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s. Several told investigators that on previous trips, once they crossed the border and delivered the vehicle, they were told there would be no work that day, Hayes said.
To combat the trend, ICE has taken the unusual measure of publishing its own ads in Tijuana’s two main newspapers, Frontera and El Mexicano. The Spanish-language ads started running Sunday, and will continue through the end of the month, with the aim of informing potential job seekers of the risks they run. These ads read along the lines of: “Warning! Drug traffickers are announcing employment for drivers to cross to the United States. Don’t be a victim of the smuggler’s trap,” reads the text.
The traffickers “have time and money to think of creative, innovative ways to get narcotics across the border, and that’s what we’re seeing now,” said Millie Jones, an assistant special agent in charge for the San Diego field office. When responding to employment officers, she said, job seekers “need to ask questions such as, “Where is this job located? Can I see some documentation? Am I going to sign a contract?”
Hayes said that in many cases, the drivers already suspect something is not right. In one instance, a Tijuana resident in his 40s told Hayes that his wife had warned him, and urged him to search the vehicle. He did, but not thoroughly enough, and was caught at San Ysidro earlier this year with about 30 pounds of cocaine packed into the gas tank.
While there have been many individuals caught in this scheme by the drug cartels, others continue to elude border patrol agents. With drivers being paid $50-$200 per trip, drug smugglers hope this tactic of paying less than seasoned smugglers makes drivers appear less nervous when questioned by border inspectors, said Millie Jones, an assistant special agent in charge of investigations for ICE in San Diego.
Victor Clark, director of Tijuana’s Binational Center for Human Rights, doubts the ads will work without specific instructions on how to confirm whether a company is legitimate, such as calling an ICE telephone number.
“It’s very difficult for someone who is unemployed to know whether it’s a trap,” Clark said. “I don’t think many people are inclined to investigate if they are desperate for work.”
The cases can be challenging for prosecutors because drivers may not know they are smuggling drugs.
Debra Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego, declined to say how many cases have been prosecuted or cite any examples. Rachel Cano, assistant chief of the San Diego County district attorney’s southern branch, said each case is different.
“Just like any other case, a theft case, we look at all of the facts and if there are sufficient facts that meet the elements of a crime and we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, then we file charges,” Cano said.
Guadalupe Valencia, a San Diego defense attorney, said the ads by U.S. authorities might inadvertently help defendants. Attorneys will argue it is an acknowledgement that people are often tricked. “It has always been my opinion that there are many unknowing couriers,” he said. “The challenge for the prosecution is you always have to prove knowledge.”
Whether the tactics by ICE end up decreasing the amount of drug smuggling that occurs into the U.S., what is clear is that drug smugglers keep coming up with new and creative ways to continue bringing drugs into the U.S.