Border Patrol agents are combatting cartel recruitment with a graphic film designed to scare high school students straight. But some experts say the program misses the mark.
McCAMEY — Bloody bodies piled in a truck bed, charred corpses lying next to gas containers in the desert, teens getting shot in the head at point-blank range: As the gory images fill the screen, more than 100 high school students in hoodies and letter jackets sit in rapt attention.
They’re not at the latest blockbuster action film. The McCamey High School students — all 130 of them — are in the school auditorium, watching a U.S. Border Patrol production. The graphic film, part of the agency’s Operation Detour, is designed to scare students away from the drug trade that pervades border communities. “There are no friends in this business,” John Prewit, director of the Presidio port of entry, tells them.
Prewit was one of about a half-dozen officers from law enforcement agencies in the region who joined Border Patrol for the presentation. As more U.S. teens get caught hauling loads of narcotics and even acting as mercenaries for Mexican cartels, state, federal and local law enforcement agencies are taking a more aggressive role in trying to prevent youths from “getting hooked,” as Prewit said, by the criminal organizations.
Last year, Border Patrol agents started giving the Operation Detour presentation in Texas border schools. Already, more than 60,000 students have seen it, and the agency has decided to expand the program along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. “We want them to sit up and pay attention,” said Mike Hanson, a Border Patrol agent based in Eagle Pass who helped start Operation Detour.
But is it working? While border experts say that law enforcement has correctly identified the at-risk population — young males close to the border — they question the effectiveness of the “shock therapy” Border Patrol is attempting. Youths on the border, they say, are keenly aware of the dangers of drug trafficking because it’s part of daily life there. Teens get into the business, in many cases, not only to make a quick buck but also because there are few other employment opportunities for them in poor, rural border communities. “The policies have to be policies of engaging young men in school and getting them advising and aid to get them on the path of a career,” said Tony Payan, a political science professor and border expert at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Shock and awe
McCamey, home to two sit-down restaurants, one stop light and 1,800 people, is 200 miles northeast of the border town of Presidio. In this region of Texas, where the nearest Wal-Mart is an hour’s drive, a weekend trip to visit family four hours away in Ojinaga, Mexico is a common experience, said LuAnn Elliott, counselor at the high school. She was worried some of her students were coming home from Mexico with more than abuelita’s homemade tortillas and hugs. “They need to be aware of what could happen,” Elliott said.
Elliott heard about the Border Patrol’s anti-drug trafficking program, and she got in touch with the agency to request a presentation in McCamey. So, on a bright and brisk Thursday morning in December, Felipe Gonzales, supervisory agent in the Van Horn Border Patrol station, set up the audio and video equipment in the gray high school auditorium. He hung posters with photos of jail cells, bullet-riddled bodies, corpses with maggots creeping on them and blood-red messages, like “A career in narcotics smuggling... there are only two retirement plans.”
Still sleepy students walk into the room, and coach Ronnie Molina, acting principal for the day, orders them to sit in the front rows. The kids get seated, the chatter and giggling dies down. Gonzales, a slight and soft-spoken man, explains that he and the other officers lined up at the front of the auditorium are here to help the students avoid making the same mistake as their peers who wind up cartel victims or behind bars. “It’s a little graphic in some parts,” he warns.
State and federal officials say they’ve seen an increase in the number of juveniles, both Mexican and American, working for cartels in recent years. Border Patrol spokesman Mark Qualia said the agency has begun attempting to track Mexican minors caught trafficking drugs more closely than before so that they can identify repeat offenders. “Your smuggling organizations have come to realize that they don’t lose a potential courier because if it’s a juvenile, nine times out of 10, they’ll be released,” he said.
And last month, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a warning to parents that international drug smuggling organizations are recruiting in public schools. Border youths were responsible for 18 percent of all gang-related and drug arrests in 2008, according to DPS. The agency cited the example of Laredo natives Gabriel Cardona and Rosalio Reta, teenagers who were convicted of acting as hit men for the infamous Zeta assassins of the Gulf Cartel. “It is more important than ever that parents be aware of these risks, talk to their children and pay attention to any signs that they may have become involved in illegal activities,” said Steve McCraw, DPS director.
“It should be zero, but 20 percent of our kids are involved with the drug cartels,” said Johnny Ruiz Jr., chief of the Eagle Pass Independent School District police. There are about 14,000 students in the school district just across the border from Piedras Negras, Mexico. More than 85 percent of the students there live in economically disadvantaged households, according to Texas Education Agency data. Ruiz said some get involved with the narcotrade as early as age 9 or 10. “You’ve got your major gangs that come into our city, and they offer the world to these kids,” Ruiz said. “You want love, you want money, you want power... and they get lured.”
A professional documentary-quality film appears on the large screen at the front of the McCamey High auditorium. FBI agents, reporters and authors explain that the promises of money, power and respect that cartels make to their minions has snagged too many teens. The screen quickly cuts to images of youths getting shot in the back of the head, of bodies piled in a truck bed. “If you’re lucky, you get arrested and go to jail. If not, there’s only one thing that can happen. There's going to be a burial site,” says Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, a former FBI agent.
A cartel member on the screen explains a “guiso” to the students. After torturing errant drug mules for information, the narco kingpins douse them in gasoline and light them afire. A woman screams and footage of real blackened body parts appears on the screen. A few of the students look at one another, eyebrows raised.
“They won’t think twice about killing you,” agent Gonzales tells the students as the film concludes. He plays another video, a homemade interview with a Sul Ross State University student from just a couple of hours away in Alpine. He tells about “so-called friends” pressuring him into making a chunk of change by bringing a load of drugs from Ojinaga. He got caught and convicted, put on probation and suspended from school. Forever, he will have a drug felony on his record. Always, he will look over his shoulder fearing the cartel has caught up with him.
The third and last movie is about high school students who get caught driving an SUV stuffed with pot-filled suitcases they thought would land them some cash. Instead, some of them wind up in handcuffs and one gets shot in the head. “We’re trying to scare you and tell you, ‘Yeah, this could be you,’” Upton County Sheriff Dan Brown tells the kids. “It’s sickening; it’s real.”
There’s some time for discussion after the movies, and the students ask the officers about their biggest busts (hundreds of pounds), what they do with the seized drugs and cash (Drugs get incinerated; money goes into the agency’s budget.). One asks what somebody should do if they’re in a gang but want help getting out (Go to the police.). Will they still get help even if they’ve killed people, another student asks (Sure, an officer says, they’ll be a lot safer in jail than if the cartel gets them.).
About an hour-and-a-half after they filed into the auditorium, the students shuffle out, stopping on the way to shake hands with the officers. Eric Mooney, an 18-year-old senior, summarizes what he learned from the presentation: “Not to do it; it’s not worth it.”
That’s the whole point, said Border Patrol agent Hanson. Later that day in Del Rio, Hanson drove around Lake Amistad near Del Rio, which separates Texas from Ciudad Acuña in Mexico and is often used to ferry drugs into the U.S. This is where Operation Detour began when an agent was struck by the experience of a young high school honor roll student who got busted for smuggling. “They see the bling, they see the fancy cars, the fancy rims and the fancy lifestyle,” Hanson said. The video is meant to be a reality check, to hit teens in the face with the severity of the consequences. “We’re having an honest dialog. Nobody’s talked about this, and now we’re discussing it,” Hanson said.
Since the program only started about a year ago, there’s no way to know what kind of impact it’s having. But the response from students has been positive. “One of the most common comments we’ve received is they wanted to see more violence,” Hanson said. The Border Patrol has ordered all the border sectors to implement their own Operation Detour in local schools.
Border experts said the Border Patrol’s program is speaking to the audience that is most vulnerable to cartel recruitment. But the frighteningly violent presentation, they said, misses the mark when it comes to what pushes many border youths into the narcobusiness.
For youths living in poverty in border communities, the decision is often less about lusting for a life of fast cars and pretty ladies and more about putting food on the table, said Jane Maxwell, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Excellence in Drug Epidemiology. “If scaring them keeps some kids from doing it, great. But I just think there are so many other forces,” she said.
Children in border communities are twice as likely to live in poverty as those who live in other areas of Texas, according to a 2009 report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based organization that advocates for low- and middle-income Texans. The 15 Texas counties that share a border with Mexico have an average unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, compared to the statewide average of 8.1 percent. “A lot of it is just a manifestation of all the social and economic problems along the border," Maxwell said, "and the drugs just add fuel to the fire."
Throw in high dropout rates and high teen pregnancy rates, and for many youth, the options for making a decent living seem pretty slim. About 20 percent of border residents agreed that the drug trade could be a good way for people to raise themselves out of poverty in a 2003 study by UT researchers Richard Spence and Lynn Wallisch. Twenty percent also agreed that the drug trade had some positive economic benefits in their communities. “It’s all wrapped up with poverty, the lack of social capital, the lack of education,” Maxwell said. “I mean, what else is there to do?”
Professor Payan, at UTEP, said the lack of opportunity and the feelings of invincibility common to teens make young men on both sides of the border easy targets for cartel recruiters. But deploying Border Patrol agents to administer “shock therapy” in schools, he said, is not a long-term solution. Instead, he said, government policies should focus on keeping young men in school, helping students get involved in constructive after school activities and subsidizing employers who will train and hire young people in border communities. “It’s the typical American way of dealing with things: Let’s shock the hell out of them and see if we can scare them,” Payan said. “Give me a break.”
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