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Blog Post: Cartels Exploiting Young Americans and Migrants

Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force   Blog

Chad Kasmar is the Chief of Police in Tucson, AZ, and a co-chair of the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force. He shared with us one of the biggest concerns he deals with at the intersection of local law enforcement and immigration: the exploitation activities of cartels.

In recent years, news outlets have increasingly reported on a disturbing trend:  Transnational criminal organizations recruiting American teenagers from border state communities in Texas and Arizona to help smuggle migrants and drugs along the U.S.-Mexico border. Teenagers as young as 14 are being targeted by the cartels through video games and social media platforms like Snapchat and TikTok, where advertisements for the jobs are offering up to $3,000 per journey. Chief Chad Kasmar of Tucson, AZ, recently spoke with the LEITF about how this reality is affecting his community.

Chief Kasmar, tell us why you’re concerned about this topic?

It is important to teach our youth about the reality of being involved with cartels, including the risk of harm, the threat of criminal punishment, and the less-than-exciting lifestyle of lower-level cartel members. Simply stated, we are losing to cartel propaganda and, as a result, our youth are being preyed upon. Social media platforms, elected leaders, and parent all must do better in combatting this messaging, educating our children on the real dangers of this conduct, and protecting our youth.

How do law enforcement officers plan on responding to these incidents in which teenagers from border communities are being recruited to take part in cartel-sponsored smuggling at the border?

No singular law enforcement agency can effectively solve this issue alone. Human smuggling and trafficking are often interconnected to other types of criminal activities, such as violent crime and narcotics, and almost always crosses through multiple jurisdictions. The Tucson Police Department (TPD) has established strong working relationships with the other local, state, and federal agencies in our area, including the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). We collectively exchange information and intelligence to ensure all agencies and our region are well informed on criminal activities impacting our region.

Law enforcement agencies in Southern Arizona often work collaboratively on cases and evaluate the information and involved crimes to be able to respond effectively. There are a variety of strategies utilized to address criminal activity, as well as a multi-faceted approach to the overall problem solving. Enforcement, education, and prevention all play a role in combating the targeting of our youth for criminal activities. TPD embraces opportunities to provide educational materials and training for our community through a variety of different approaches.

What are the dangers posed by cartel-sponsored human smuggling operations?

Cartels have no value for human life. This is not a video game and there is a great potential for danger in interacting with cartels. For people who accept the invitation to engage in human smuggling, they face not only being arrested, but also being exploited by the criminal who arranged for the deal.

Cartel criminals will often lure individuals in to rob, kidnap, or physically harm them when they arrive to meeting locations. This includes stealing the car from the prospective recruit or demanding money from them if they can’t complete a transport as negotiated. Cartels often force those they employ to perform additional criminal activities before they release them. Cartels direct drivers to flee from law enforcement, and direct drivers to drive into oncoming traffic, and stay at speeds above 100 MPH in attempt to keep any pursuing public safety member from maintaining a pursuit.

There have been numerous fatal collisions related to cartel driver activities, highlighting the risk for those being smuggled and unwitting drivers traveling on Arizona highways. We have observed this behavior on countless occasions as suspected cartel load vehicles (both human smuggling and narcotics loads) and travel from the southern Arizona boarder and travel to other parts of the United Sates through our state capital, Phoenix.

Cartels are violent organizations and will exploit others to achieve their goals. The immigrants face similar dangers. Immigrants are often deprived of food and water, are harmed, or beaten, and often forced to commit other crimes. Female immigrants are at high risk to be exploited for sexual activities or placed into human trafficking. Our Arizona summers also increase the risk to an already volatile environment with temperatures well above 100 degrees. Dehydration and death can occur within hours for children, elderly and even healthy adults who run out of water.

Why do you think American teenagers are engaging with the cartels, knowing that the work being offered is dangerous and illegal? Do you think it is important that they are better informed about the nature of human smuggling?

Cartels are excellent at marketing, luring young individuals into their organizations via special media platforms with the promise of easy money, power, and respect. The risk of criminal punishment is often outweighed by the perception of a glamourous lifestyle – one that very few within a cartel actually experience.

Being involved in dangerous and illegal activities is celebrated by youth on social media. It is often associated with expensive cars, clothes, attractive men and women, and guns. It’s a false advertisement of an exciting lifestyle that overshadows the reality of true cartel work.

Do you have any policy recommendations for the federal or state government?

Cartel activities, including human smuggling, are a daily reality in border communities. Solutions-based bipartisan efforts are needed to protect our youth from cartel activities. Border security and meaningful immigration reforms can address root causes and reduce cartel-sponsored human smuggling.

No perfect, one-size-fits-all solution exists, but it is essential that policy makers at all levels of government listen to community, public safety, and educational leaders in border communities. These candid and diverse voices from impacted communities can help shape an effective policy response to conditions on the ground.

State and federal governments should engage in a fact-based, educational campaign to counter cartel propaganda. Federal funding of these types of educational activities would have a positive impact on protecting our youth from cartel activities.

LEITF would like to thank Chief Kasmar for his time and sharing his expertise, and also our summer intern, Ben Moorman for his contribution to this post.

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