/ Modified feb 17, 2011 5:19 p.m.

Drug Cartels Lure Border Teens

Drawn by the promise of fast money, a growing number of American teenagers are detouring into drug-running.

Last spring, a 15-year-old Arizona girl was arrested with five pounds of pot taped to her stomach. On the same day, a 16-year-old was arrested at the same port with two pounds taped to his leg. Then another Arizona boy, 16 years old, was arrested a couple of months later.

All three were U.S. citizens.

A rising number of American kids from border towns are being recruited into Mexican drug cartels, lured by the fast money of running narcotics. It's a growing issue in border towns like Tucson, Yuma and San Diego, and it's one that the Border Patrol is trying to counter with a school program it calls Operation Detour.

The movie starts with a threat:

"Only two things can happen, only two things can happen," says a narrator. "If you're lucky, you get arrested, you go to jail."

That's a graphic film the agents show middle school kids in a Tucson classroom, trying to convince them that the cartels will use them and throw them away.

"And if you're not [lucky], there's only one thing that can happen. There's gonna be a burial site for you," the narrator says.

Steve Saldana, a former schoolteacher turned Border Patrol agent, says the program started in Texas in 2009 and has been taught to about 11,000 students along the border. His booming voice carries across the classroom like a drill sergeant's.

"These drug cartels are going to paint you a very nice picture. OK?" he yells. "Easy money. Fast cash. Because there are consequences when you join the drug cartels. It's not a game."

The U.S. Marshals' Service says that for most of 2010, they were housing 20 juveniles a month in Arizona, all serving time on federal felony charges like drug and migrant smuggling. In October, that number jumped to 31.

At the ports in Arizona, the number of teenagers caught smuggling climbed by 50 percent last year. In San Diego, the numbers nearly doubled in 2009.

Steve Leniger is the principal of La Paloma Academy in Tucson. He's seeing a commonality at his school: juveniles running loads of dope for other family members.

"Kids are transferring it from parents, uncles, aunts," he says. "And basically, those people are being asked to get it from point A to point B and they don't want to be responsible, so kids are a lot less of a target than, let's say, adults."

Meanwhile, the movie students see offers a grim and detailed view of the consequences kids can face.

"They might take you to a ranch, torture you for hours until they kill you and you're never heard about again. That's the end of it. There's no return. No return," insists the narrator. Then a gunshot rings out.

Yet 14-year-old Orlando Teer says he's not convinced.

"I don't believe it. I don't believe that they actually kill people and all that stuff," he says. "Once I see it, I'll know what to believe."

Others weren't so skeptical. For 15-year-old Joe Fouts, the film had the desired impact.

"I realized what it really is and that I don't want to do any of that stuff; it opened my eyes," he says. "I thought when I'd come out, I'd be fine. But it's not that way."

Texas has seen a drop in teenage smugglers. Supporters of the program believe Operation Detour is having an impact there.

In Arizona, U.S. Customs agents arrested another child, 13 years old, at the Douglas port of entry late last month (January) with about two pounds of marijuana taped to his inner thigh.


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