A string of five arrests in one week is highlighting a new trend in the drug smuggling business. Teens are strapping Fentanyl to their stomachs and back and trying to walk it across the border.
Since March 27th, US Border Patrol agents have made five such arrests of teenagers at the San Ysidro port of entry.
"It's something that the US Attorney's office is not going to sit idly by and watch the cartels manipulate these children," says Deptuty US Attorney Mark Conover.
Overall, Fentanyl smuggling is on the rise. Officials say it's up 1250% since 2015. And between 2016 and 2017, the number of Fentanyl seizures at San Diego's border went up from 260 to 952.
But it hasn't been until the last few months that agents started seeing teens trying to move the drug.
"Cartels are using high school students to recruit other high school students," says Conover. "Oftentimes it's underpriveleged students that need a few hundred dollars are are willing to assume the risk of strapping drugs to their body."
The arrests show that most of the teens are US Citizens who live in Mexico with their families. They cross the border every morning for school. Many don't know the danger associated with the drug.
Fentanyl is extremely potent. The amount that it takes to cause a fatal overdose is smaller than the size of Abraham Lincoln's face on a penny. Agents worry that if the package the teens are smuggling breaks, it could kill them and others around them.
Already in 2018, there have been 8 confirmed overdose deaths from Fentanyl in San Diego, with another 12 under suspicion. In 2017, there were 82. As recently as 2014, when the first Fentanyl seizure was made at the border, there were only 15.
"This is a binational problem, and it requires a binational solution," says Conover.
The US Attorney's office met this week with the Mexican Consular General in San Diego to discuss ways to fight the new trend. They plan PSAs that will air on both sides of the border, and an educational program where they can go into schools and teach kids the legal and physical dangers of becoming a drug mule.
"We certainly hope the kids that would consider this, once they know the risks, once the know the consequences, once they know there's very little upside for themselves, they'll think twice," says Conover.
The US Attorney's office is also working with the DA's office in San Diego on prosecuting offenders. But since the teens are in the juvenile system, oftentimes the punishment is light. For adults, 400 grams of Fentanyl carries a mandatory 10-year sentence. The US Attorney's office is hoping they can target the adults dealing the drug in the US and the Cartels supplying it in Mexico to stop the trend.
They've already prosecuted 3 dealers in San Diego this year, charging them when someone overdoses.