It's not unusual for California police or federal drug enforcement agents to catch drug smugglers at the border, with cannabis or heroin hidden, say, in the tires. But early last year, officials in San Diego say they noticed something surprising. A lot of the smugglers they arrested didn't have any idea that there were drugs in the car.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigated, according to The Associated Press, and found that drug cartels had been placing ads in the classified sections of local newspapers, advertising jobs at a cleaning company or security guard agency. The work involved driving across the border, parking the car at a specific location, walking away, and not asking questions. For the day's work, the "company" would pay $50 or $100.
Officials now believe, though, the company was a drug cartel, and the ads were a strategy of recruiting smugglers.
So the ICE developed a novel plan, reports the AP: The agency put ads in the classified sections of Mexican newspapers, too, warning their readers that taking these jobs could make them unwitting pawns in a very illegal and very dangerous drug trafficking operation.
"It's the cat and mouse game of smuggling along the border," explains Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman. "The smugglers are constantly trying to outwit us. Where they go, we're one step behind them. Where we go, they're one step behind us."
This week, the ICE bought ads in two Tijuana newspapers to run for 30 days. For just $1,800, the ICE thought that they could stop the cartels from expanding their pool of smugglers, and perhaps some people would even call with information.
"Tips are everything to us," says Mack.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about smuggler recruitment is that those smugglers have to be able to cross the border and enter the U.S. That often means they're American citizens, U.S. residents, or Mexicans with a valid visa.
"We've seen just about every scenario," says Mack. "U.S. citizens that live on boats in Mexico, down on their luck. Homeless people recruited from soup lines."
Of course, some of these recruited smugglers aren't totally clueless. Mack says that many of them are desperate, and so simply choose not to ask questions. They don't want to know. Several of the smugglers recently arrested in San Diego later confessed that they had suspicions.
But for those who may be truly duped into this scam, Mack has some advice about how to tell when a job is a real, safe, legal job, and when it's smuggling narcotics.
"Meet your employer in a place of legitimate business, like an office setting," says Mack. Often, these unwitting smugglers would meet their new employers in a park, a McDonald's, a Walmart or someone's home. If the company doesn't have an address, she says, it's a warning sign.
Also important, Mack notes: "Did you fill in an application?"
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