YUMA, Ariz., July 5 (UPI) -- Mexican drug cartels increasingly rely on teenagers to smuggle drugs across the U.S. border into Arizona, authorities say.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection records show 130 minors -- many of them American teens with relatives in Mexico -- were arrested while allegedly trying to smuggle drugs across the border through entry ports from Sonora, Mexico, into Arizona in the 2009 fiscal year, up 83 percent from the previous year, The (Phoenix) Arizona Republic reported Monday. (The U.S. Border Patrol doesn't keep statistics on teens attempting to smuggle drugs into Arizona through the desert and mountains.)
The newspaper reports the teens are often lured by cartels that intentionally mislead them to believe they would not face a stiff sentence if caught. In reality, prison terms are common for teen smugglers.
"One thing for sure: They will get the harshest punishment possible," said Teresa Small, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman in San Luis, Ariz.
Michael Lowrie, a spokesman for the Border Patrol, said traffickers may be recruiting more juveniles because federal prosecutors have cracked down on so-called drug mules who smuggle drugs through ports or the backcountry.
Teen offenders who are American citizens are typically referred to local authorities for prosecution under Arizona, not federal, law, Small said, while Mexican nationals caught smuggling are referred for federal prosecution and ultimate deportation.
Roger Nelson, chief deputy for criminal cases at the Yuma County Attorney's Office, said almost all 17-year-olds and many 15- and 16-year-olds are charged as adults with drug importation, a felony. Plea deals often reduce the charge to attempted importation with a 3 1/2-year prison sentence.
U.S. and Arizona authorities have teamed to create awareness campaigns to warn Yuma County students about the risks and consequences of smuggling.