December 1, 2013
SAN YSIDRO — A Tijuana teenager’s recent attempt to smuggle methamphetamine into San Diego might have drawn little public notice — except that after he was pulled aside for questioning at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, he sipped the liquid and died.
Now the case of Cruz Marcelino Velázquez Acevedo, 16-year-old high school student, has shined a new spotlight on the issue of underage drug smugglers from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“These kids are oftentimes typical teenagers making a really bad decision,” said Marian Gaston, a public defender in San Diego. “They’re not thinking in terms of border security, they’re not thinking of how many meth deaths there are each year. They’re thinking, ‘This is a really quick way to buy a new pair of tennis shoes.’ ”
Velázquez was detained at the San Ysidro crossing about 6:40 p.m. Nov. 18, a Monday, as he walked into the pedestrian crossing area from Tijuana. He told inspectors he was carrying juice in two small containers and voluntarily took a sip, according to San Diego police.
Not much later, he fell violently ill and died after being taken to Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. A test showed that the liquid he drank contained methamphetamine.
Those who knew Velázquez said he was an average student at Cobach Siglo XXI, a public high school in Tijuana’s San Antonio de los Buenos district.
“He had no discipline problems. He regularly attended class,” said María Guadalupe Estrella, the school’s principal. “For the children, this has been devastating.”
As San Diego homicide detectives continue to investigate the case, many questions remain unanswered, including what persuaded Velázquez to smuggle the drug and why he sipped the liquid.
Seizures at California ports of entry with violators under 18 years old
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Seizures of methamphetamine along California’s border with Mexico have soared by 575 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Liquid meth has been a growing phenomenon in the past two years, with smugglers hiding it in receptacles such as bottles, gas tanks, windshield-wiper reservoirs and battery containers, said Pete Flores, the agency’s San Diego director of field operations.
“They’re getting the liquid meth from the labs in Mexico, crossing it here into the United States” and then converting it back into solid form for sale, said Gary Hill, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in San Diego. “A lot of cartels (in central Mexico) are involved — Knights Templar, Familia Michoacana. But obviously, the Sinaloa cartel is also actively involved with the same thing.”
Velázquez was among a growing number of minors caught at the U.S.-Mexico border with methamphetamine in recent years, reflecting the overall smuggling trend. In 2009, the vast majority of juveniles caught with drugs at California ports of entry, a total of 176, were carrying marijuana, according Customs and Border Protection. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, methamphetamine seizures topped the list for juvenile violators — a total of 75.
Despite the switch in drug of choice, the proportion of minors caught with drugs at U.S. land ports of entry has remained steady over the years — about 5 percent of all drug-related arrests, Flores said. Typically, the children are detained as they enter from Mexico on foot, he said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who investigate these cases have seen children as young as 12 carrying drugs across the border. ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said those caught usually have no criminal records and are not drug users. They work for low pay, earning $50 to $100 for each load, she said.
“The value of the drug is incredibly high compared to the amount of money they’re paying them to smuggle the load,” Mack said.
She also said traffickers who target minors lure them by saying there’s little risk. “They’re telling them, ‘Nothing will happen to you. Don’t worry, they can’t prosecute you,’ ” Mack said.
In fact, those arrested are then turned over to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution, where they face charges of drug transportation, said Michele Linley, chief of the juvenile division in that office.
In a more typical scenario, had he not drank the meth liquid, the 16-year-old Velázquez “would have been arrested and brought to juvenile hall,” Linley said. He would have faced a range of penalties, depending on his family background, support system and other factors.
The consequences for those found guilty “run the gamut from going home with supervision, from probation all the way to spending up to a year or more in a local juvenile program,” Linley said.
Hoping to prevent teenagers from being tempted to smuggle, officers from ICE and Customs and Border Protection regularly visit San Diego schools to warn students about the dangers. The presentation includes a video of a teenage girl behind bars.
“They’re warned that this can go against their chances of going into the military, of going to college and getting students loans,” Mack said.
“The ultimate goal is to educate the kids on the hazards,” said Flores at Customs and Border Protection. “It’s a dangerous position they’re putting themselves in.”