80% of Border Drug Busts Involve US Citizens

By McCarton Ackerman 03/26/13

Border Patrol reports highlight Mexican traffickers, but the reality is much different.

They're not who you think they are. Photo via

Although Border Patrol may project a different picture, American citizens are now dominating the Mexico-US drug mule market, The Daily Beast reports. Three out of four people found with drugs by the border agency are US citizens and 80% of busts (which may include multiple people) involve at least one US citizen, according to records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Although the Obama administration has seized more drugs than ever and posted the two biggest years on record for pot seizures, the number of immigrants illegally crossing the US-Mexico border is at its lowest level in decades. Alonzo Peña, former deputy director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says illegal immigrants have been scapegoated in American media as the primary drug runners—but the reality is different. “After 9/11, the immigrant, terrorist, and criminal and the threat to national security have all been lumped together,” says Peña, "We're not distinguishing very well who is who." The number of US citizens caught at the border with drugs has tripled between 2005 and 2011 and increased each year except for a slight drop in 2011. However, of the 2,000 press reports released during this time from the Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, 38% mentioned a Mexican national (including a drug-trafficking suspect). Only 30% mentioned Americans, even though numbers show they are involved in a much higher percentage of the busts.

American drug mules may be increasingly drawn to the job out of economic desperation. “With the economic downturn, you just have pools of people out of work,” says Tucson, Arizona defense attorney Jeffrey Bartolino. “The great majority that are caught with 100 kilos or 150 kilos in a car or truck are people that are hired that day or the week before and they needed money.” Around the border, he says, “drug trafficking is such a normal activity that people are so desensitized to it...It’s part of the way of life...It’s very, very easy.” Law-enforcement officials and former drug mules say Mexican drug traffickers may recruit US citizens, thinking will be less suspect by police. Traffickers have also shifted tactics—reducing the size of their drug loads, which means higher frequency of smuggling attempts, and a need for more drivers, including US citizens. “They know the language. They know the culture. They know the routes,” says Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Rusty Fleming. “And the traffickers have learned the art of breaking down the risk.”

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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.