Arizona County Sending Underage Drug Mules To Adult Prison

By McCarton Ackerman 05/04/16

Since last May, Operation Immediate Consequences has charged 51 juveniles, some as young as 14, as adults on drug-trafficking charges.

Arizona County Sending Underage Drug Mules To Adult Prison
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Teenagers caught smuggling drugs into Cochise County, Arizona have typically faced few repercussions—border patrol agents would simply take the drugs and send them back over the border—but local authorities are raising the stakes by sending these underage drug mules to adult prisons.

The county launched Operation Immediate Consequences last May. Since then, 51 juveniles as young as 14 have been charged as adults for drug trafficking, according to the Los Angeles Times. All but two of them accepted a plea deal, in some cases without legal representation, to serve 18 months in an adult prison in exchange for a guilty plea. According to Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre, teens arrested for trafficking would tell authorities, “Just turn me loose, get it over with,” expecting to be sent back home. But now when they are told they’re being prosecuted, “the tears start coming.”

One of the two minors who refused the plea deal is 17-year-old Mario Nieblas, who was arrested on suspicion of smuggling nearly 90 pounds of marijuana from Mexico. He initially accepted the offer without the aid of an attorney, but declined it once he was provided legal representation. He is now fighting to have his case heard in juvenile court. But if he fails, he could face up to three years in adult prison—double the 18-month sentence offered by the plea deal. His attorney, Xochitl Orozco, argued that by sending him to an adult prison, “they are giving up on this individual before he started.” 

Most, but not all, of the minors charged as a result of Operation Immediate Consequences are from Mexico. County prosecutors also charged two local high school students in February. The cases are still pending.

Thirty local high school students witnessed Nieblas' court appearance as a part of a school field trip, so they could understand the consequences of dealing drugs, according to Superior Court Judge Wallace Hoggatt. Most of them were sympathetic to Nieblas’ plight. “The fact that he's a minor and he's not documented as a U.S. citizen, he won't be educated,” 17-year-old Jalia Wilson told the Times. “All he’s going to know is jail life.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.