LAREDO, Texas – The ongoing influx of undocumented immigrants at the border and a continued crackdown on big rig smuggling have led human smugglers to recruit teenage drivers on social media, according to Matthew Hudak, chief agent for the Laredo sector of U.S. Border Patrol.
“The smuggling organizations are pretty savvy. So they go to where the kids are to try to recruit them,” Hudak said.
The anonymous posts proclaim, “Make some quick racks,” meaning piles of cash by driving any vehicle, even big rigs, but they don’t say why or where.
Hudak said a few years ago, when Border Patrol arrested nearly 200 teenage drivers in 2018, they included honor students and star athletes.
“We had individuals that you would never think would be involved in these types of things,” said Marco Montemayor, the Webb County attorney who prosecutes juvenile cases.
Montemayor said he doesn’t see as many cases like that anymore.
Montemayor and Hudak said they could be teenagers with gang affiliation or those who’d already been in trouble before. Others are from Nuevo Laredo and help migrants cross the Rio Grande.
Montemayor said once their cases are adjudicated -- being Mexican citizens -- they’re sent back to Mexico to perhaps try again.
However, Hudak cautioned that smugglers have a broader audience to entice through social media far beyond the border.
“Particularly juveniles that were not in that traditional at-risk category,” Hudak said. “They’re just looking for the opportunity to make money.”
So far this year, the Laredo sector has arrested 90 teenage drivers, Hudak said. He said they often just need to be old enough to drive and have access to a vehicle, even the family car.
Hudak said parents often have no idea what their child is doing until they’re arrested, and their vehicle is seized.
Montemayor said he’s trying to attack the problem by filing cases against them and prosecuting them “to the fullest extent of the law.”
Since they are juveniles, each one is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. “You’re looking at probation and minimal custody time,” Montemayor said.
But if there are “aggravating circumstances,” such as evading arrest or fatalities or serious bodily injuries, Montemayor said they could be tried as adults or begin serving their sentences in the juvenile system before being transferred to the adult prison system.
Smugglers believe the system will go easier on juveniles, Hudak said, but that’s not true.
“There are still ways in which they’ll be held accountable,” Hudak said.
Montemayor said one of the most serious consequences would be if someone is killed during a high-speed chase, like a case in 2016 in which a 15-year-old driver tried to elude Border Patrol on I-35. Nine people flew out of the back of his pickup, killing one, critically injuring eight others.
That driver is still serving an eight-year sentence.
“That has a lifelong impact,” Hudak said. “Very devastating.”
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