US Suspects Detained in Most Mexico Border Drug Busts

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A growing number of US citizens are being arrested for trafficking drugs over the US-Mexico border, according to an analysis of Border Patrol seizure statistics.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) found that the number of US citizens caught with drugs near the frontier tripled between 2005 and 2011.

The organization found that three out of every four people caught in drug busts by the Border Patrol were US citizens, and that US citizens were among those arrested in four out of every five busts. This also applies to cases where large quantities of drugs were seized, with US citizens involved in 60 percent of these. This was even higher when it came to marijuana shipments of over 1,000 pounds, rising to more than two-thirds.

The CIR report used Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection records detailing over 80,000 drug seizures along the southwest border. However, only half of these cases involve incidents in which a suspect was detained.

Even though US citizens are involved in the majority of drug busts along the southwest frontier, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection press releases do not reflect this reality, the CIR found. US citizens were mentioned in just 30 percent of the news bulletins about drug seizures released between 2005 and 2011. In contrast, Mexican citizens were mentioned in 38 percent of the press releases.

InSight Crime Analysis

The CIR notes several possible explanations for the increased number of US citizens involved in moving drugs, including the US economic downturn, and the theory that Mexican drug smuggling organizations believe that US citizens are less likely to attract suspicion from law enforcement.

For both US and Mexican nationals who agree to work as drug mules, their ignorance may be their most attractive quality. Such low-level smugglers rarely know anything about the larger criminal organizations moving drug shipments northwards. Thus, if caught, the smugglers can offer little detail about the leaders or the inner workings of Mexico-based criminal groups.

Inexperienced drug mules may be more likely to plead guilty to federal drug charges in the United States in order to avoid the risk of receiving a longer prison sentence, rather than collaborating with investigators and disclosing the identities of those who hired them to smuggle drugs.

One trend highlighted by CIR’s report is the increased importance of marijuana as a major earner for Mexican traffickers. The US Border Patrol made its largest marijuana seizure in history in January, confiscating 7 tons, beating the previous record of 12,000 pounds (5.4 tons) of the drug seized in June 2010. In a figure that is illustrative of how marijuana is being moved across the border, the CIR notes that about 80 percent of all marijuana seizures in the United States occur within one section of Arizona and south Texas. Mexico reported the seizure of some 1,799 tons of marijuana in 2011, compared to just 11.3 tons of cocaine. These numbers highlight the degree to which marijuana has become the fallback product for Mexico’s cartels.

If criminal organizations have indeed increased their recruitment of US citizens to move drugs northwards, it would come as another innovation in a smuggling trade that frequently relies on the coercion of US-bound immigrants — and middle-class professionals — to move product. Quirkier smuggling techniques have been employed as well, from firing drugs in catapults to simply stuffing packs of marijuana through the southwest border fence. 

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