EL PASO, Tex.— – Mexican cartels are paying teens as young as 14-years-old hundreds of dollars to transport drugs into the United States --tempting for anyone at any age.
That's why law enforcement in Texas are trying to get to students before the drug cartels do.
The cartels promise teens that the job is easy and because of their young age they won’t get seriously punished—but U.S. Border Patrol Agents say juveniles will do time if they are caught.
“We have the cartels telling these juvenile’s that there is no risk involved in alien and drug smuggling,” said David Zapp, supervisory border agent for the U.S. Border Patrol. Now a team of local authorities is stepping in.
In 2009, they started a prevention program called Operation Detour.
Representatives from the U.S. Border Control, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, El Paso County Sheriff’s Department and El Paso County Juvenile Department give presentations to middle and high school students in the El Paso area about the dangers of working with the cartels.
They present to seven school a month, showing graphic films on what happens if they are caught – or worse, if the transport isn’t done up to the satisfaction of the cartels. “In Juarez they may cut you up. We have videos of people being beheaded,” said Manny Marquez a deputy patrolman at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Dept. Zapp laid out the possibilities.
“The risks are either jail or in the worst case scenario, death, torture, things involving the cartels attempting to get the money and drugs back.”
Sometimes family members get hit with violence of the cartels, too. If it’s not the cartels taking control, it’s the authorities.
“We seize homes, we seize cars, we seize jewelry, we seize cash. Anything with value that you bought with drug money, it’s going to be seized, and it’s going to be taken away from you,” said Marquez.
Marquez reports that close to 200 people have been murdered as a result of the violence so far this year.
Zapp told FoxNews.com that teens can be recruited anywhere to get involved in smuggles – grocery stores, malls, even on their school grounds.
It might be from someone they least expect.
“They can be recruited by people they know, people they trust.”
On Wednesday, seniors at Riverside High School in El Paso were presented with Operation Detour. Jose Romero said it brought back bad memories, when his uncle was arrested for smuggling drugs from Juarez into El Paso.
“It was tough. Because it’s someone you love, being caught doing something like that, it was very disappointing.” Romero has vowed to steer away from any drug activity. In the Texas legal system, 17-year-olds are considered adults.
As the senior class graduates in a month, they were reminded that if they have a felony on their criminal records, they lose their eligibility for federal financial aid for college. It just takes one slip up to put an end to a teenager’s potential.
“They have a lifetime to make choices. And they should make the right ones, because it only takes a wrong one to completely change their future,” said Jenn Ortiz, a U.S. Border Agent.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t have the numbers of how many teens have been caught smuggling across the border – but said they are less now then they were a couple of years ago. “For a while, you might say we were picking them up on a daily basis,” said Marquez.
The most recent arrest was made two weeks ago, he added. Zapp said if they helped save one teens life, then the mission has been worth it.