With 1.2 pounds of methamphetamine concealed on his back and legs, 13-year-old Rene was arrested at the Interstate 19 Border Patrol checkpoint in April 2016.
He was charged with unlawful transportation of a dangerous drug for sale.
Fast forward to March of this year. The now 15-year-old was recently present in a juvenile court hearing to receive his sentence.
He sat before the judge in his juvenile detention uniform, with a couple of family members in the audience declaring their willingness to help after his release.
Rene represents only one of several teen drug traffickers who have become a small part of the culture along the border town of Nogales, Arizona. For them, it’s a quick trip to money and fame.
As of March 30, the Santa Cruz County Detention Center was housing eight individuals between the ages of 15 and 17, four of whom were apprehended with substantial amounts of drugs, according to Tivo Romero, the county’s chief probation officer.
One of these individuals was charged for possession of 41 pounds of methamphetamine; two co-offenders were charged with 139 pounds of marijuana; and the other was accused of driving a vehicle with 699 pounds of marijuana.
While many factors play a role in adolescents succumbing to the drug business, Romero says instability at home is the most common influencer.
“Oftentimes, they come from families that are very poor and I can understand why some of these kids make the choice to try to traffic drugs,” says Romero. “I’m not justifying what they did, but it makes sense.”
As Romero puts it, anyone might consider turning to the drug business if it means being able to help put food on the table for the entire family.
But economic factors are not always to blame. .
As Romero and the chief of the Nogales Police Department agree, the social pressure along the border plays a great deal in these teenagers’ decisions.
“No matter how you see it, it’s a lucrative business. It’s easy money,” says Police Chief Roy Bermudez. “Unfortunately, there are some kids that get into that, but [majority of the time], it’s the values that they were raised with.”
María Badilla, Rene’s cousin, says his neighbors in Mexico threatened him that harm would come to his family if he did not transport the drugs.
“I don’t think those kids are picked randomly,” says Bermudez. “I think there has to be an interest, there has to be a circle of who they are hanging out with, who they socialize with.”
The ages of young minors also play a major role in the social peer pressure to traffic drugs.
“Kids can often get lured in as a result of the thinking that, because they’re kids, nothing is gonna happen to them,” says Romero.
However, this thinking has not always shown to be true.
For example, Romero says the teen who allegedly had 41 pounds of meth committed the crime so close to turning 18 that he’s now being prosecuted as an adult.
“He’s 17, and there’s a pretty good possibility that he’s going to earn a felony conviction,” says Romero. “That’s something a lot of these kids don’t understand – that it’s gonna follow them.”
Bermudez also adds that laws have gotten stricter on minors committing these drug-related offenses.
“They used to use juveniles to drive these cars, so they were stopped with 300 to 400 pounds. And since they were juveniles, they wouldn’t get prosecuted,” says Bermudez. “The County Attorney George Silva has sent the message that it doesn’t make a difference how old you are.”
Romero explains that the U.S. Attorney’s Office often does not prosecute minors involved in drug-related offenses when caught by federal agencies such as the U.S. Border Patrol or the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. However, there are community authorities who decide to take over those cases.
“To avoid having these juveniles walk away without consequences, the cases are picked up by the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office and prosecuted,” says Romero.
The county’s Juvenile Probation division processed 33 of these cases in fiscal year 2017, and has processed 19 in fiscal year 2018 so far, according to Romero.
“That’s the only way we’re gonna make a difference in this community,” says Bermudez. “We can’t ignore the problem because we’re just condoning it.”
Rene serves as a clear example of these stricter actions against teen drug trafficking, as his case was initially picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol, but prosecuted through the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s office.
On March 20, Judge Thomas Fink allowed for Rene’s release from the juvenile detention facility under several conditions. Rene was to live with his cousin, María, in Tucson, where he was to enroll in school and obey by all laws; he was prohibited from entering Mexico to avoid another related incident; and he was to return to court in May for a check-in and follow-up of his case.
Safe town despite the border issues
Regardless of the issues that naturally surround the community, Bermudez states that Nogales, Arizona, remains a very safe town.
There may be a small trend of juveniles turning to the drug business, but it does not mean that every adolescent will wind up trafficking drugs.
Romero explains they have received an overall average of 450 referrals in the last few fiscal years. About 20 percent of these referrals were for drug-related offenses, and 10 percent of those consisted of substantial amounts of drugs.
Romero also points out that some cases involve the same individuals who may be getting referred multiple times in one year.
As Bermudez lays it out, many people have the wrong idea of the safety in the community.
“Unfortunately, we take a bad rep because of our sister city Nogales, Sonora,” says Bermudez. “A lot of people don’t bother to differentiate the U.S. and the Mexico side of Nogales.”
According to the Mexican newspaper El Imparcial, Nogales, Sonora, saw a total of 38 homicides between January and August 2017. In the same time period, there were 226 homicides in 2010 and 66 in 2014.
In the sister city of Nogales, Arizona, records showed only two murder cases in the past six years. Aside from assisting other agencies, some of the top incidents that the NPD responded to in 2017 were 69 traffic violations, 26 served warrants and 17 assaults.
Bermudez says the community is fortunate to have strong law enforcement and the smooth collaboration between each agency, but he believes the city needs to strive toward being more visible and building a strong trust with the public.
“This is their police department, this is their community,” says Bermudez. “It’s everybody’s responsibility to keep it safe, so we need everybody’s help.”
Genesis Lara is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org