A U.S. Border Patrol agent parks in the Sunland Park area, an area commonly used for human smuggling. (Claudia Tristán/El Paso Matters)

El Pasoans were reminded of the grave risks of cross-border smuggling when seven people died in a car crash on Paisano Drive on June 25 after the driver allegedly fled the Border Patrol during what was characterized as a human smuggling event

Four El Paso teenagers were among those killed in the Paisano crash: driver Gustavo Cervantes, 18; Yadira Barrera, 16; Liliana Jimenez, 16; and 19-year-old Jorge Manuel Acosta.

Juvenile involvement in smuggling has long been a problem for border communities, both human smuggling and drug smuggling. So significant is the issue that the Border Patrol has implemented outreach programs in schools throughout El Paso and other border communities to educate young people about the dangers of smuggling. 

And yet, for a variety of reasons, there is a dearth of information available to the public about the true extent of juvenile involvement in border smuggling. 

A U.S. Border Patrol agent on patrol in the Sunland Park area, a popular migrant crossing spot. (Claudia Tristán/El Paso Matters)

Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Valeria Morales said that the El Paso Border Patrol sector does not track juvenile apprehensions for human smuggling. “We know it’s a problem, however we don’t track that,” she said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office also doesn’t track juvenile involvement in smuggling, said Daryl Fields, spokesperson for the Western District of Texas. “(We) can say anecdotally that smuggling organizations often use juveniles hoping we won’t prosecute,” Fields said. 

Josiah Heyman, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso and prolific author on cross-border smuggling, said, “We don’t really know the scale of juvenile smuggling, including American teens, because data is not published systematically (and maybe not even collected).” 

Morales said that CBP does track national data on juvenile smuggling apprehensions, but the national headquarters did not respond to a request for comment, and does not make that data readily available if they have it. 

Juveniles are seldom prosecuted for human smuggling crimes, rendering any data provided by the courts necessarily incomplete, even if they were tracking these cases.

“In the past 20 years, I’ve seen two or three alien smuggling cases involving juveniles where the government prosecutes. It’s a different process that they have to go through, just a lot more work, so they hardly ever go that route,” said Reggie Trejo, supervisor in the office of the Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Texas. 

Data does exist for juvenile drug smuggling, and reveals a dramatic increase in apprehensions of juvenile U.S. citizens caught transporting drugs into the United States. In the El Paso area, the number of U.S. citizen minors (17 and under) caught smuggling drugs so far in fiscal year 2020 is more than triple the total number caught in 2019. 

An 18-year-old U.S. citizen was apprehended last month while entering El Paso with 158 pounds of liquid meth. 

Trejo said the public defender has seen an increase in young adult U.S. citizens being caught smuggling drugs at the border since COVID-19 border crossing restrictions began in March, a reflection of shifting tactics by drug cartels. People who aren’t U.S. citizens and permanent residents can’t enter the United States from Mexico except in limited circumstances.

“We’ve seen a lot more U.S. citizens being arrested with drugs since all of this started. These organizations have been recruiting U.S. citizens because they can come and go. The ones that we’ve seen have been 18, 19 year olds. I don’t know if they’ve arrested juveniles, or if so how many. I can tell you we haven’t gotten any juvenile cases this year appointed to us. We’ve gotten a lot of 18, 19 year olds that are walking the border with amounts of methamphetamine on their bodies,” Trejo said. 

Border enforcement and human smuggling

Heyman said heightened barriers to border crossing, including COVID-19 travel restrictions, have driven up the cost of smuggling, making it all the more lucrative for smugglers. 

“Increased border enforcement results in raising the price that smugglers charge to migrants and increases the proportion of migrants who feel like they need to use smugglers,” he said.

Friends of Liliana Jiménez, who died in the fatal crash on Paisano one June 25, console each other as they gather at the site of the accident to remember their friend. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Brock Benjamin, an El Paso criminal defense attorney who often has clients accused of human smuggling, has noticed an uptick in smuggling cases at his law office. 

“Alien smuggling has gone through the roof and the kids have gotten younger,” Benjamin said. “We didn’t used to have very many alien smuggling cases, and now that’s about all we have. It’s gone from zero to probably 60 to 70 percent of the number of cases I have.”

Increased enforcement of border barriers fuels the migrant smuggling market and creates perverse outcomes of border policy, Heyman argued in “The Shadow of the Wall,” a book he co-authored with several other border scholars. 

“Border Patrol and the policies that they’re dedicated to serve are creating the market for the smugglers. They are able to identify and arrest a few smugglers, especially lower-level workers, but they’re creating the circumstances under which the people have those roles in the first place,” Heyman said in an interview with El Paso Matters. “Perverse outcomes (are) where you think you’re going to end something by prohibiting it, and what instead you do is make it more expensive, more desperate, riskier, drive it underground and so forth. We are definitely in a late-stage cycle of perverse outcomes in terms of human smuggling.”

Why teenagers are targeted

Border Patrol Agent David Zapp has worked in school outreach programs in the El Paso sector for almost 10 years. He said the problem isn’t limited to high school students, and that education about the risks of smuggling are also part of Border Patrol presentations at local middle schools.

“Pretty much all the (school) counselors have expressed to me in one way or another that they are aware of the threat that there is recruiting going on in the high schools. Almost all the high schools, and even a good number of the middle schoolers are requested to either sell drugs, or bring drugs in from Mexico, or transport the drugs through the Border Patrol checkpoints into the interior of the country,” Zapp said. 

Araceli Velasquez and her daughter, Yadira Barrera, who was killed in June in a vehicle fleeing the Border Patrol in what officials said was a human smuggling attempt. (Photo courtesy of Araceli Velasquez)

Araceli Velasquez, mother of 16-year-old El Pasoan Yadira Barrera, who died in the June 25 Paisano crash, said that she doesn’t believe her daughter was aware of the migrant smuggling plan before getting into the car. She said her daughter had big plans for the future, including studying cosmetology and opening up her own salon. 

Velasquez said that she and her daughter communicated openly whenever there was a situation where Yadira felt at risk. 

On the night of June 25, Velasquez said that Yadira had permission to hang out with friends at Scenic Drive, and ended up staying later than planned. Velasquez said she texted her daughter around 1:30 a.m. to say that it was time for her to come home. Yadira texted her at 1:36 a.m. that she was getting a ride — it was her last text. 

“I went through her phone, I’ve seen her snap videos, they weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just up there (at Scenic Drive),” Velasquez said. “ I think (the driver) thought it was just easy to get away with it … like, ‘We’ll pick them up and drop you off on the way over here,’ because they all live over here on this (Lower Valley area of town).”

Zapp said that when a young person is recruited by a gang or cartel to engage in criminal cross-border movements, they are lured by the promise of easy money and are often unaware of the risk.

“(Gangs and cartels) throw them money that will be more than a part-time worker can make in two weeks, for one day of work, and they lie to them telling them that there is no real risk involved. But in actuality there’s a lot of risk that’s involved with it, and they don’t tell the kids what that risk is,” he said. 

Zapp said that juveniles can be especially susceptible to recruitment for this work both because of the allure of large sums of money, and because young people tend to think of themselves as invincible. 

Joe Veith, an El Paso criminal defense attorney who represents people charged in smuggling cases, said that the lack of prosecution of minors could be a factor in why significant numbers of teens end up engaging in human smuggling. 

“That may be one of the reasons why they may be a more attractive recruit, because they have potentially less likelihood of being prosecuted to the same extent of the law as an adult,” Veith said. 

Zapp said that El Paso parents should be mindful of the risks young people face in terms of cartel and gang recruitment when living on the border. 

“If you have a kid that doesn’t have a job that you know of and is coming back with shoes that you never bought for them, where did they get the money for that stuff? Parents don’t ask those questions of where they’re getting this money from, and a lot of times it’s because the kids are getting involved in gangs and cartels. It really is in every high school in the city in our general area,” Zapp said.

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.