As high-ranking U.S. officials made a visit the southern border, the FBI warned that Mexican gangs are using unwitting civilians to smuggle drugs into the U.S., by planting them in the cars of people who cross the frontier on a daily basis.
While the authorities hailed the visit as rolling out a new strategy for border control, few details were available. Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and drug czar Gil Kerlikowske visited Nogales, Arizona, and announced plans to redouble efforts to cooperate with Mexican officials.
However, nothing in Napolitano’s or Kerlikowske’s words seemed to indicate a radical shift in American policy in the border region. Indeed, it is unclear that this is anything beyond than a renewed emphasis on cooperation. While this might lead to some marginal improvements, it doesn’t appear likely that this visit will mark as a watershed moment in slowing the drug trade along the Mexico-U.S. border.
Meanwhile, as the El Paso Times reported, the FBI recently uncovered another way gangs are slipping contraband past authorities: according to court files, they are depositing narcotics in the trunks of cars of people who regularly cross the border, without the drivers realizing.
The scheme starts with lookouts identifying the cars that use the express lane to cross into El Paso on a regular basis. After ascertaining the Vehicle Identification Number, the gangs then duplicate the keys of the car, and surreptitiously deposit and remove the drugs as needed.
This practice is thought to be responsible for the discovery of 100 pounds of marijuana in the trunk of Ana Isela Martinez Amaya, a school teacher who was stopped by Mexican soldiers while trying to cross the bridge to El Paso to get to work in late May. After the marijuana was discovered, she was taken to a Juarez prison, where she has remained ever since.
But a suspected drug trafficker has testified in a sworn FBI affidavit filed in federal court that his group used Martinez to transport drugs without her knowledge.
Such a scheme has several advantages; the mule would not be nervous or show signs of strain when interacting with soldiers or Border Patrol agents, and would be less likely to be searched.
The use of the express lane to cross the border, a privilege granted to some commuters who work on one side by live on the other, also cuts down on the transit time required. Furthermore, profit margins would increase under this scheme, because the mule would not be paid.
Nonetheless, it seems unlikely to take on a major role in drug trafficking. As the Martinez Amaya case shows, using someone ignorant of her cargo is not a foolproof way to slip drugs past the border, and relying on people who aren’t working for the owners of the drugs adds a dangerous element of unpredictability.
The simplest ways to get drugs into the U.S. will remain the most popular: driving them across the border, often with the assistance of a corrupt border guard who waves the contraband through, and flying them into the country in the bellies of drug mules.
Drug traffickers will surely continue to think of inventive new schemes to send drugs to the U.S., from catapults to carrier pigeons to Jesus statuettes made of cocaine, but these will most likely remain trafficking sideshows. However, it can't hurt for regular border-crossers to double check their trunk and give a couple of extra kicks to the tires.