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Most drug busts on US-Mexico border involve American citizens

by Matt Lee with Michelle Lanz | Take Two®

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A Border Patrol agent looks for footprints from illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.- Mexico border in 2010. Traffickers have begun using immigrants as drug smugglers, recruiting voluntarily and forcibly. John Moore/Getty Images

Illegal immigration at the US/Mexico border has dropped to its lowest level in 40 years, but drug smuggling continues to be a problem. Now a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting has found that most people caught with drugs at the border are American citizens, not Mexican nationals.

“The numbers there were pretty startling to us. Three out of four people that the US Border Patrol busts with drugs are US citizens, but there's a wide variety in the amount of drugs that they're caught," said Andrew Becker, of the Center for Investigative Reporting. "A significant number are people that are caught with a small amount, a joint, a few joints, as well as people who have been busted with well over 1,000 pounds of marijuana."

RELATED: See the full report by the Center for Investigative Reporting

The Border Patrol’s own records also reveal that U.S. citizens are more often caught with large amounts of drugs than non-U.S. citizens. In addition, when a person’s immigration status is noted, U.S. citizens are involved in drug trafficking 60 percent of the time. In cases of marijuana busts of 1,000 pounds or more, the percentage rises above to more than two-thirds.

Who are these Americans who have resorted to drug trafficking? It’s reported that smugglers are increasingly younger and older americans that tend to be driven by a variety of motives that include drug addiction and unemployment.

But do the rewards outweigh the risks? In some cases, not really, Becker cites a case in which a trafficker was paid only $300 dollars to transport about 100 plus pounds of marijuana.

In another case involving U.S. Naval Academy grad Todd Britton-Harr, he admitted to have made five smuggling runs to Detroit and back each time carrying roughly 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of marijuana. Britton-Harr admitted that he began trafficking to help pay off a business partner’s debt to drug traffickers. 

American citizens are not the image many people have when you mention drug smugglers along the US-Mexico border. Instead, most people likely think of Mexican nationals, or mules being the ones taking the risk across the border. 

CIR’s reporting questioned whether this inaccurate picture of smugglers as purely Mexican nationals or members of drug cartels could be rooted in the misleading picture propagated by Border Patrol press releases. The investigation revealed the Border Patrol reported on Mexican nationals in an estimated 38 percent of press releases, compared to the 30 percent mentioning a United States citizen. However, the Border Patrol has responded that they only write reports based on the amount of drugs seized and if the method of trafficking was unusual. Smaller amounts do not warrant a press release.

“One caveat to say with the data, it is an imperfect data set, we analyzed more than 80,000 seizures, half of those seizures they didn't catch anything, like there was an abandoned drug load,” said Becker. “Having a sense of who was involved in that, we really don't know, so the conventional wisdom is that those are people coming from south of the border, Mexico, who are bringing those drugs in, but we just don't know.”

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