By Andrew Becker, G.W. Schulz and Tia Ghose – The Center for Investigative Reporting
The public’s view of a typical Mexican drug smuggler might not include U.S. Naval Academy grad Todd Britton-Harr, who was caught at a Border Patrol checkpoint in south Texas in December 2010 hauling a trailer with 1,100 pounds of marijuana.
Nor would someone like Laura Lynn Farris leap to mind. Border Patrol agents stopped the 52-year-old woman at a border checkpoint 15 miles south of the west Texas town of Alpine in February 2011 with 162 pounds of marijuana hidden under dirty blankets in laundry baskets.
There’s no argument that Mexico-based crime organizations dominate drug smuggling into the United States. But the public message that the Border Patrol has trumpeted for much of the last decade, mainly through press releases about its seizures, has emphasized Mexican drug couriers, or mules, as those largely responsible for transporting drugs.
It turns out that the Border Patrol catches more American citizens with drugs than it does Mexican couriers, according to an analysis of records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Three out of four people found with drugs by the border agency are U.S. citizens, the data show. Looked at another way, when the immigration status is known, 4 out of 5 busts – which may include multiple people – involve a U.S. citizen.
In a written response, Customs and Border Protection said the agency issues news releases to highlight significant or “otherwise noteworthy seizures.” The most commonly highlighted busts involve large amounts of narcotics, unusual trafficking or concealment methods, or other notable factors, according to the agency.
Alonzo Peña, who retired in 2010 as deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said illegal immigrants have been increasingly portrayed as a “boogeyman” problem to the United States.
“After 9/11, the immigrant, terrorist and criminal and the threat to national security have all been lumped together,” he said. “We’re not distinguishing very well who is who.”
As the number of immigrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped to its lowest level in decades, the Border Patrol has looked to other areas to stay relevant – positioning itself as an intelligence-driven national security agency focused on terrorism and drug trafficking.
Under the Obama administration, the agency has seized more drugs than ever – almost all of it marijuana – including the two biggest years on record for pot seizures. Since 9/11, the agency has doubled in size, to 21,000 agents, and is now part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the country’s largest law enforcement agency.
CIR obtained multiple data sets on drug busts between 2005 and 2011 through the federal Freedom of Information Act, including records never before made public of more than 80,000 drug seizures by the U.S. Border Patrol along the Southwest border.
The data paint an incomplete portrait, however. Nearly half of the 81,261 seizures don’t have suspect information available, because the drug loads were abandoned and no one was caught. In the remaining busts – more than 40,000 drug seizures – at least one U.S. citizen was involved 80 percent of the time.
In a jailhouse interview, Britton-Harr, 36, said that by the time he rolled up to the Falfurrias checkpoint about 80 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in December 2010, he already had made five smuggling runs to Detroit and back.
Britton-Harr, who is housed at the Coastal Bend Detention Center near Corpus Christi, Texas, said he ran his first load in May 2010 to pay down a business partner’s $600,000 debt to drug traffickers. Each time, he transported a load of 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of marijuana, worth roughly $100,000 to traffickers.
“I was amazed at how ineffective it was,” Britton-Harr said of the checkpoint. “What (U.S. law enforcement is) doing is not putting a dent in what (drug traffickers are) doing.”
Law enforcement officials and even U.S. citizens who have been busted said Americans often are recruited because traffickers hope they will arouse less suspicion from police.
In another case, an unemployed mechanical engineer who was caught at the Sierra Blanca traffic checkpoint in Hudspeth County, in remote West Texas, said he was exactly the kind of person traffickers wanted to transport drug loads. He was successful 17 times before a drug-sniffing dog found more than 80 pounds of marijuana stashed in the car he was driving in January 2011.
“Being an American, being upper-middle-aged, that’s who they target,” said the 54-year-old Texan, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. “For one thing, it’s a lot less suspicious for the Border Patrol.”
More U.S. citizens caught each year
The number of U.S. citizens nabbed with drugs by the Border Patrol is increasing, with three times more caught in 2011 than in 2005, an analysis of the government records shows. The Border Patrol caught slightly fewer U.S. citizens in 2011 than the year before, but otherwise, the agency has caught more Americans every year since 2005.
The analysis shows that Border Patrol agents mostly seize drugs in amounts large enough to be considered drug trafficking – at least 1 kilogram of marijuana, for example. Most busts in which a U.S. citizen is caught include less than that. Nearly all of these busts take place at immigration checkpoints.
The Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, long a major thoroughfare for illegal immigration, stands out as an outlier. More unauthorized immigrants were caught with drugs in that part of Arizona than U.S. citizens.
Customs and Border Protection spokesman William Brooks said the agency had not analyzed the statistics, but the “bulk of people arrested are for personal possession amounts, not smuggling for resale.”
“Anecdotally, we have U.S. citizens who smuggle drugs, in large amounts sometimes,” he said. “The majority of people involved in smuggling drugs are citizens of Mexico.”
But the Border Patrol’s own records show that a U.S. citizen is more often caught with large amounts of drugs than a non-U.S. citizen. When the person’s immigration status is noted, a U.S. citizen is involved in drug trafficking – including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine – 60 percent of the time. For marijuana busts of 1,000 pounds or more, the percentage climbs to more than two-thirds.
The public face of the Border Patrol shows something different.
Of nearly 2,000 press releases from the Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, between 2005 and 2011 that mentioned a drug-trafficking suspect, 38 percent noted a Mexican national had been arrested.
U.S. citizens, meanwhile, were mentioned roughly 30 percent of the time, even though they represent a much higher percentage of those busted, according to the analysis. The remaining one-third of press releases did not include information on the nationality of those caught with drugs.
The Border Patrol’s chief function has been policing unauthorized entries into the country between designated border crossings. Its agents also set up traffic checkpoints inside the United States and patrol freight trains and other transportation systems.
Several factors may contribute to the growing number of U.S. citizens who have been caught, law enforcement officials, defense attorneys and other experts say. Those include the anemic economy, enhanced border security over the last decade, the shattering violence of Mexico’s drug war and some permissive medical marijuana laws in the United States.
In more recent years, Border Patrol checkpoints in Yuma in western Arizona and Big Bend in west Texas have received international attention with several high-profile busts of celebrities along with thousands of other Americans. Traffic checks account for roughly half of the Border Patrol’s drug busts.
Ronald Colburn, who retired as national deputy chief of the Border Patrol in 2009, said many of those caught with personal amounts come from out of state, notably California.
“You can just seem them rolling up, smoke puffing out the window and saying, ‘Dude, this is for medicinal use,’ ” Colburn said.
Turning to drug trafficking
People become mules for various reasons – greed, desperation, drug addiction – law enforcement officials and defense attorneys say. There is an endless need for – and supply of – smugglers and drivers because of the volume of drugs to cross. If a driver gets busted, traffickers can easily find a replacement.
Tucson, Ariz., defense attorney Jeffrey Bartolino said that for many, drug trafficking is a social net. Those drivers typically know little to nothing about the operation or even how many pounds of drugs they’re carrying. Law enforcement officials say they also see more people getting recruited at casinos and an increasing number of younger and older Americans.
One of Bartolino’s court-appointed clients, David Robeson, 35, was caught behind the wheel of a vehicle in remote southeastern Arizona where agents spotted three Mexican nationals loading five bundles of marijuana totaling 260 pounds into a car. Robeson pleaded guilty in October.
In an objection to the government’s presentence investigation report filed with the U.S. District Court in Arizona, Bartolino wrote that the unemployed Robeson was to be paid $300 for his one-time role.
“With the economic downturn, you just have pools of people out of work,” Bartolino said in an interview. “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.”
They can be recruited anywhere – at parks, bars or schools, through friends or relatives – said Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas in El Paso, who has extensively interviewed people in the drug trade.
In the border region, “drug trafficking is such a normal activity that people are so desensitized to it,” he said. “It’s part of the way of life … and part of the way people think about the world. It’s very, very easy.”
In the past couple of years, agents in Tucson and the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas seized more drugs, particularly marijuana, than in any other part of the country, according to Border Patrol statistics. Roughly 80 percent of all marijuana seized nationwide was interdicted in those regions.
Anthony Placido, former intelligence chief for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said intelligence reports suggest Mexican drug syndicates have “doubled down” on marijuana. He said it appears traffickers have increased production of marijuana to offset losses stemming from counternarcotics efforts, particularly large cocaine and methamphetamine seizures, which could explain the bump in seized marijuana.
In remote Hudspeth County, Texas, where the Big Bend Sector’s Sierra Blanca checkpoint sits, Sheriff Arvin West said the Border Patrol has enhanced security by increasing agents and drug-detecting dogs at checkpoints to catch more contraband.
But traffickers also have changed tactics. They have reduced the size of their drug loads, which means they have increased the frequency of smuggling attempts and use more drivers – including U.S. citizens – he said.
“They know the language. They know the culture. They know the routes,” said Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Rusty Fleming. “And the traffickers have learned the art of breaking down the risk.”
Agustin Armendariz contributed to this report. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.