SAN YSIDRO, Calif. (KGTV) - A disturbing new trend at the US-Mexico border has several federal agencies teaming up, as teenagers are being arrested trying to smuggle Fentanyl into the country.
"Narcotics smuggling is not a new thing," says Customs and Border Protection Director of Field Operations Anne Marcicich. "But this is."
In 2017, agents at the border caught 84 teens trying to smuggle narcotics. But none of them had Fentanyl. Already in 2018, they've made 41 arrests, including 6 for the dangerous drug. That includes five in the past week.
Customs and Border Patrol believes enhanced security and screening has led drug dealers and cartel to target teens. They strap packages of the drug to their stomach or backs and walk across the border.
In many cases, the teens are US citizens who live with family in Mexico and cross the border every day to go to school.
"These juveniles, they're being recruited in schools, on public transportation, while they're waiting in line to cross the border, by their families, and also on social media," says Special Agent David Shaw, with Department of Homeland Security Investigations. "They're offered quick money and even electronics for continued success."
Now, CBP, Homeland Security, the San Diego District Attorney's office and the US Attorney's office are teaming up to let kids know how dangerous the drug can be, and the impact an arrest can have on their lives.
"They're being told nothing will happen to them because they're juveniles," says District Attorney Lisa Weinreb. "Nothing could be further from the truth,"
Weinreb says the DA will prosecute all kids caught smuggling Fentanyl. And while they may not go to prison, they will be put through the juvenile justice system, which can include any number of rehabilitative steps. The arrest will also stay on their record and keep them from jobs or military service.
In addition to the legal dangers, the physical danger can be worse. Fentanyl is a highly potent narcotic. Just a small amount, about the same as 30 grains of sand, is enough to cause a fatal overdose if ingested. Federal agents that confiscate and handle the drugs have to wear protective clothing and masks to make sure they're not exposed.
Maricich says the kids don't realize they're putting their lives, and the lives of others, at risk when they strap a bag to their body.
The agencies have started adding Fentanyl into their presentations they give at high schools around San Diego. They've been to 61 schools since 2009, but early presentations focused on marijuana and methamphetamine. Now they'll focus on Fentanyl.
"The message is clear," says Weinreb. "These youth will be caught and prosecuted if they engage in dangerous activity."