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By 6 a.m. that morning in November 2020, things were already off to a bad start for Ivan Granillo. 

He missed the three alarms that normally wake him up for his early morning weekday shifts at a distribution center in San Diego. He scrambled to leave his home in Tijuana and drove to the San Ysidro Port of Entry to cross into the U.S.

But things for Granillo were about to take a turn for the worse. He would never make it to his shift that morning. 

Why This Matters

Blind mule smuggling is believed to be rare, but it’s hard to say exactly how many people are unknowing drug couriers. For those innocent who get arrested at the border, their lives are irrevocably changed.

Instead, customs officials at the border found nearly 100 pounds of methamphetamine sitting in a black duffle bag and two plastic bags in the trunk of Granillo’s car. He was arrested, questioned and charged with importing a federally controlled substance. If found guilty, he would face a minimum of 20 years in prison because of a previous drug conviction.

Granillo says he had no idea the drugs were ever in his car, and throughout the year long court battle, he claimed what defense attorneys, crime experts and government officials today call the “blind mule” or unknowing courier defense. 

Blind mule smuggling has been a known strategy among Mexican drug traffickers for decades, multiple crime experts told inewsource. Cartels place the drugs in the car of an unsuspecting driver – the courier, typically someone who crosses frequently between the U.S. and Mexico – and then the drugs are picked up on the U.S. side of the border without the driver knowing.

It’s known as the go-to defense – “I didn’t know there were drugs in the car” – for smugglers caught in the act. The government says most people crossing the border with concealed drugs know what they’re doing. 

But defense attorneys contend that the phenomenon happens more often than the government admits. 

And even after years of evidence pointing to the use of blind mules, the U.S. government has taken little action to warn the public about a threat that could affect those who travel in the more than 15 million personal vehicles that cross the San Ysidro Port of Entry annually.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency tasked with policing U.S. borders, said drug traffickers use a range of methods to get illegal drugs into the U.S. which “may include taking advantage of people who frequently cross the international boundary.” 

“This is an opportunity to remind the traveling public to stay vigilant when presenting at a port of entry, and that travelers are responsible for everything they bring across the border,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Newer technologies like GPS trackers make it easier for traffickers to follow drugs across the border. And more recently, the introduction of fentanyl to the drug market has made the use of blind mules more feasible since the potent drug can be shipped in smaller amounts. 

In turn, the fentanyl overdose epidemic has intensified the government’s efforts to intercept deadly narcotics before they reach the U.S. and crack down on those caught smuggling it – in particular at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest port of entry in the world and what the port director has called “ground zero” for drug smuggling trends. 

Ivan Granillo is photographed outside of the Port of Entry in San Ysidro on May 5, 2023. Granillo was found not guilty on drug importation charges he says stemmed from drugs being placed in his car without his knowledge before he was caught with them crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Since October, customs officials have intercepted more than 68,000 pounds of illegal drugs at ports of entry in California, though it’s believed the vast majority of drugs that pass through the border go undetected.

Granillo, who is an American citizen, faced a difficult choice: plead guilty for a lower sentence or take his chances at trial. He chose the latter.

“I was scared … but I knew I wasn’t doing (anything) illegal,” Granillo said recently in an interview with inewsource

In September 2021, a jury found Granillo not guilty. But not before he spent nearly a year of his life in jail, lost his job and his overall life stability. His case testifies to the way the criminal justice system can turn a defendant’s life upside down before they’re ever found guilty. 

“Being behind bars, you might say it’s only nine months, but let me tell you, one day behind bars when you’re not out there – freedom is priceless,” Granillo said. “I lost nine months of my life over something I didn’t have any clue (about).” 

There are more like Granillo – arrested for smuggling drugs they said they had no idea they were carrying: a school teacher on the way to get a haircut, a receptionist coming back from vacation, a mechanic picking up car parts.

Crime experts agree that smugglers target a small fraction of border crossers to be unknowing couriers – and that vast majority of people who cross the border would not be likely victims – but it’s nearly impossible to know how many are. 

For those who are innocent and caught in the scheme, their lives are irrevocably changed. 

‘La mula ciega’ 

The blind mule, or “la mula ciega” in Spanish, is advantageous for cartels for several reasons, according to Victor Clark Alfaro, an organized crime expert and San Diego State University lecturer based in Tijuana. 

Cartels don’t have to pay the courier, and the courier doesn’t have any information about the cartels that could be revealed in government questioning, Clark Alfaro said.

“Of course, the risk is always that (customs officials) find the drug and the merchandise is lost and the investment is lost,” Clark Alfaro said in Spanish. “But another blind mule will surely be crossing the same day with drugs, so it is a bet with a lot of chances of winning more than what they have to lose.”

The popularity of narcotics including fentanyl also make blind mule smuggling attractive to drug trafficking organizations, Clark Alfaro said. The potent narcotic, which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, can be shipped in much smaller amounts, making it easier to hide from unsuspecting drivers. 

Cars approach the San Ysidro Port of Entry from Tijuana, May 18, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“The economic potential is enormous,” Clark Alfaro said. 

When Granillo was arrested in 2020, he said he had just gotten his life “on the right track” again. He had recently finished a four-year prison stint for a previous drug trafficking charge for which he pleaded guilty. 

He was working his “dream job,” providing for his wife and three children when he was suddenly thrown off course – arrested again and sent to jail, this time for a crime he said he did not commit. 

“The first couple months, I got on my knees before I (went) to sleep, and I asked God … asked him every day, ‘Why, why, why God, if you know that I’m innocent, why am I in here?’ ” Granillo recalled. 

Recently, Tijuana authorities have noted an uptick in would-be blind mule cases. Some have even reported blind mules smuggling humans in place of drugs. 

José Fernando Sánchez González, security and citizen protection secretary for the city of Tijuana, said drug traffickers look for vehicles that cross into the U.S. from Tijuana frequently and consistently, such as those belonging to people who work in the U.S. and live in Tijuana. 

The city often receives reports from residents who said they were set up as blind mules before they even crossed into the U.S.

“On many occasions, people tell us that during the night we heard a lot of barking from the dogs and that is why when I got out I decided to bend down to see if there was anything abnormal with my vehicle,” Sánchez González said in Spanish. “Or people … check the cameras of their houses and they realize that strange people were hanging around their homes at dawn.”

Traffickers sometimes target commercial truck drivers who pass through the ports of entry in California for blind mule loads, thinking drivers are less likely to inspect what they’re hauling before crossing, experts said. 

Other schemes include traffickers paying someone who can legally cross into the U.S. to perform a task – such as bringing money, or an object to the U.S. – as a distraction, and then planting drugs in the person’s car or even inside the object. 

Other cases seem to involve individuals who were set up by those closest to them. 

One woman arrested in 2021 for drug importation told a court that she believed her former boyfriend set her up. During a weekend vacation with the boyfriend, she left her car and keys at his house in Tijuana.

The night they returned to Tijuana, the woman drove back to the U.S. and was handcuffed at the border before even making it to the secondary inspection area. Officials found roughly 200 pounds of methamphetamine and fentanyl in her car. 

“I was surprised, shocked, confused. All the emotions were running through, like, ‘Wait. Wait. Wait. What happened?’ Like trying to figure out what was going on,” she told a jury in her trial. 

The jury found her not guilty in February 2022. 

Another woman was arrested in 2021 while crossing the border to see her doctor in the U.S. for a procedure relating to her eight-month pregnancy at the time. She was anxious, having contractions and unknowingly, she said, crossed with more than 50 pounds of methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin in her car. 

She won her trial in federal court in September. 

Caleb Mason has reviewed thousands of federal drug importation cases, both during his time as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California and while conducting research for a study on the drug smuggling economy.

In that study, Mason examined nearly 10,000 arresting reports on individuals apprehended between 2006 and 2010 while crossing a port of entry in California with concealed drugs. He said that in most cases he reviewed, couriers were paid – and the amount of their payments went up with the level of sentencing risk they took on in smuggling the drugs. 

Of the cases Mason reviewed, about 2% were dismissed by the government without any obvious reason. Those cases were likely blind mule incidents, Mason told a jury during a federal drug case in 2016 in which he served as an expert witness. 

“My conclusion is they’re rare, but they’re real,” Mason recently told inewsource. Still, it’s hard to answer exactly how rare. 

“I don’t know the answer to that. Nobody does, not until we find accounting records from the cartels.”

According to Mason, drug trafficking organizations will use blind mules when the cost of using one is lower than that of paying a mule. Other circumstances must align as well: opportunities for the drugs to be loaded and picked up without the driver knowing. 

Another benefit of using blind mules? They may be less likely to be caught, Mason said. 

Cars approach the San Ysidro Port of Entry from Tijuana, May 18, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

One of the most common reasons that a driver gets referred to secondary while passing through the border is apparent nervousness, Mason said. Blind mules would not be nervous since they don’t know they’re carrying drugs. 

Recent news reports recount stories of blind mules who make it through the border only to discover later what they’re carrying. 

Last year, Fox 11 reported that a woman who drove to a Jiffy Lube after seeing smoke coming out her car later realized she was used as a blind mule when mechanics found two bundles of drugs and a GPS device taped to the bottom of her car. 

In January, Telemundo 20 reported that a woman who had crossed the border heard strange sounds coming from her trunk. She parked her car in Sorrento Valley and when she opened her trunk, two people ran from the car, she told the news outlet. 

Ale Uzárraga, a Tijuana resident who works as a photographer and teacher in San Diego, said her sister was used in a similar way. 

Around 2016, Uzárraga said, her sister drove from Tijuana to San Diego for work as she did every day, but after she parked her car, her coworker noticed someone removing packages from the sister’s car. 

“When she looked out the window, she saw a man just pulling out packages from under her car and then she called 911,” Uzárraga said. 

By the time police arrived, the man was gone, but police told her the packages were likely heroin, Uzárraga said. 

‘We’re ruining a lot of lives’

Since 2017, nearly 9,000 people have been charged with drug importation in the Southern District of California. Though not all of those ended, or will end, in convictions, the consequences for defendants who lose at trial are steep: a minimum five or 10-year prison sentence for first time offenders based on the amount of drugs they are caught with. 

“Some people don’t want to take that risk. And it’s just very difficult. You have to know that if you keep going and you lose, you’re looking at 10 years minimum,” said Mayra Garcia, a federal defense attorney in San Diego. 

Defendants who take plea deals could qualify for reduced sentences of three to five years. 

Garcia represented a school teacher in San Diego who was caught crossing the border last year with more than 90 pounds of fentanyl and methamphetamine. 

That man’s case was strong, Garcia said. Investigators, she said, found a GPS device in his car – something that could help a drug trafficker locate the drugs once on the U.S. side of the border and that has been seen in other blind mule cases.

After months of court appearances, his case was dismissed in January, less than two months before the trial was set to begin. 

But he still spent three weeks in jail after his arrest, missed a long-planned vacation, lost his job, and hasn’t been able to recover his phone or bail bond from customs officials. He only recently recovered his car from officials. 

“My whole life has totally changed,” said the man, who asked inewsource to withhold his name for fear of retaliation. “Just like that, my whole world got turned around.”

“I can’t go back to my normal life,” he said. 

He suffered physically and mentally from the arrest, too. He now deals with anxiety and depression and crossing the border, which he still does frequently through the pedestrian lane, is a major source of stress. 

“Every time I have to cross, I don’t even want to cross. I dread coming across every day. I hate it,” he said. He doesn’t plan to ever drive across the border again because of what happened to him. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District, the office which makes decisions to bring federal charges against individuals, said it prosecutes defendants for illegal drug importation when the evidence supports it. 

Cars approach the San Ysidro Port of Entry from Tijuana, May 18, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“We make charging decisions based on the evidence, and only bring criminal cases after careful consideration when we have determined that there is sufficient evidence to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Randy Grossman, the district’s U.S. attorney, in an emailed statement.

“In rare cases, we have properly dismissed a criminal charge based on new facts or circumstances, consistent with our commitment to ethics, professional responsibility, and the Constitution.”

Dan Smith, a federal defense attorney with San Diego Defenders in Chula Vista, said he’s seen “at least one hundred” blind mule cases in his 32 years of practicing law, many of which ended in plea agreements.

Smith said cases where “the stars align,” with enough evidence to take the defendant’s chances at trial, are rare.

One such case dealt with a 72-year-old -man who was arrested in 2017 after customs officials found nearly 50 pounds of methamphetamine in his car. 

The man made his living buying cars in the U.S. and then fixing and selling them in Tijuana. He was driving across the border to pick up auto parts at a store in the U.S. when officials found the drugs packed into a spare tire, said Jon Pettis, another attorney with San Diego Defenders who worked on the case. A jury later found him not guilty. 

“There’s no question that we are spending a lot of money and we’re ruining a lot of lives by convicting people that are innocent,” Smith said, adding that those prosecutions often focus on “the weakest link.”

They’re prosecuting people, many of them that have no knowledge or very little knowledge of where the drugs possibly came from,” Smith said. 

Two years after his arrest, Granillo said he still hasn’t recovered. He’s struggling at work and with his health.

“I feel so bad, so bad. Like if everybody wants to take advantage of me … I have anger, more than ever in my life,” Granillo said. 

He wants to move on and focus on providing for his family. But it still bothers him that his freedom was put on the line without him even knowing. 

“The fact that they didn’t care. They say, 20 years of his life, okay, just play, throw the dice,” Granillo said. “It’s not their life, it’s my life.”

Correction: May 23, 2023

Due to an error in a court document, a previous version of this article misstated the arrest date of a mechanic who was charged with importing drugs. The man was arrested in 2017. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...