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

Lea este artículo en español aquí.

Kay Anderson moved from San Diego to Rosarito, a Mexican beach town a half-hour south of the border, to retire 16 years ago – and she doesn’t return very often. 

To her and her neighbors, fellow American retirees, “blind mule” smuggling, or when drug traffickers use unsuspecting border crossers to carry drugs into the U.S. without their knowledge, feels like a distant threat. 

“The dangers of crossing have only been because we hear it on the news, and then that’s what we talk about when we’re playing cards or other games.”

But for others, the risk is very real. 

Blind mules, also called “unknowing couriers,” are typically frequent border crossers with regular crossing patterns. For decades, crime experts have documented the trend of cartels targeting those crossers, planting hefty loads of illegal drugs in their vehicles while in Mexico and then using a GPS tracking device to locate and pick up the drugs in the U.S. 

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.

Experts say this smuggling strategy, though rare, could be becoming more common. 

Yet the U.S. government has done little to warn border crossers about that risk and what they could do to protect themselves. More than 1 million pass through the San Ysidro Port of Entry each month.

While the roads connecting the United States and Mexico are known trafficking routes, there are no signs warning people to check their vehicles before crossing. 

Those warnings could prevent innocent people from being arrested, charged and prosecuted for importing drugs into the U.S. they had no idea they were carrying, attorneys and crime experts said.

Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, did not respond to specific questions about what, if any, warnings the agency provides to the public, but said cross-border travelers are “responsible for everything they bring across the border” and should alert CBP officers if they think they have been targeted by a criminal organization.

“Before departing for their intended destination in the U.S., travelers should double check the contents of their person, passengers, baggage, and vehicles for prohibited and restricted items and ‘know before they go.’ ”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California said it only brings cases against defendants where the evidence proves their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 

But there are examples of cases where individuals who maintained their innocence throughout the arrest and subsequent court case fought for months, sometimes from jail, before they were acquitted or their case was dismissed.

One man, who inewsource is not naming because he fears retaliation, said he was set up as a blind mule while living in Tijuana. It took eight months for his case to be dismissed in federal court, meanwhile he lost his job and his sense of safety, and he missed a long-planned vacation.

“My whole life has totally changed,” the man said. “Just like that, my whole world got turned around.”

More awareness of problem needed, experts say

The government has warned the public in the past about blind mule smuggling, according to attorneys and experts inewsource interviewed, but today those types of warnings appear to be gone.

Victor Clark Alfaro, an organized crime expert and San Diego State University lecturer based in Tijuana, has studied the use of blind mules in smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border for decades. He’s also served as an expert witness in U.S. court trials for drug importation charges. 

Clark Alfaro distinctly remembered seeing an advertisement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published around 2010 in a local newspaper advising drivers to check their vehicles before crossing. 

“It was finally an acknowledgment that the blind mule phenomenon was a real fact and not invented by those arrested with drugs, which is always argued in the courts,” he said in Spanish. 

At the San Ysidro Port of Entry, one of the busiest ports of entry in the world, there are no apparent signs advising drivers to check their cars before crossing or to report to officials if something suspicious happened. 

Mayra Garcia, a federal defense attorney in San Diego who said she has represented defendants set up as blind mules, said those types of warnings could prevent unnecessary arrests of innocent people. 

And there are other scenarios in which the government does warn travelers about similar risks, Garcia said. 

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

“When we go to the airport, there are signs and we are told when we check in, do not take things that somebody gives to you. Make sure that you’re the one who packed your bag so that you know what’s inside your bag. Well, we don’t do that at the border.” 

José Fernando Sánchez González, security and citizen protection secretary for the city of Tijuana, said local authorities in the city sometimes receive reports from residents who find packages of drugs in their car or evidence that their car was tampered with overnight.

The city keeps track of these “avoided” blind mule incidents and shares reports of them with the press, Sánchez González said in Spanish. He also said the government gives frequent warnings to the public about the risk.

“We make the repetitive call for them to be aware, those who cross every day to the United States, who are the ones who could be potential candidates so that they are aware and they are not going to fall into this type of situation,” Sánchez González said. 

“Citizens do know about this problem.” 

But David Saucedo, a public security analyst based in Mexico City, said he’s not so sure. 

“Those of us who are aware of this obviously take precautions, but I believe that the majority of the population does not know this,” he said in Spanish.

Saucedo said more campaigns with “greater impact, greater force and awareness” from both the U.S. and Mexican governments are needed to warn cross-border travelers and help avoid “a very difficult situation” with the U.S. justice system. 

The most viable targets for blind mules, according to experts, are drivers who frequently and consistently cross between Tijuana and San Diego, especially those with predictable driving patterns. 

Many victims are also participants in SENTRI, or Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection. The Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, program allows travelers who have gone through rigorous background checks and are deemed “low-risk” to cross through special lanes into the U.S. at southern land ports of entry.

A spokesperson for CBP said known smuggling methods “may include taking advantage of people who frequently cross the international boundary,” which could include SENTRI users. 

However, while SENTRI participants who live in Tijuana may have heard of blind mule smuggling, they don’t necessarily take precautions to avoid being used as a blind mule.

Pablo Cuellar has SENTRI and crosses between Chula Vista and Tijuana at least once a week. He grew up in the area crossing frequently between the border towns. 

Cuellar has seen stories in the local news about blind mule smuggling and heard warnings from his family to check his car before crossing back into the U.S., but it’s not something he usually worries about. 

“I chalk a lot of this up to a lot of fear mongering rhetoric,” Cuellar said. “But I understand there definitely is a concern because unfortunately CBP does not make any distinction whether you knowingly or unknowingly cross something.” 

Experts agree that blind mule smuggling is rare. 

The vast majority of those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border are not prime targets because most border crossers don’t have the type of regular crossing schedule that could be targeted by drug traffickers, according to David Shirk, department chair of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego. 

“The number of incidents, the number of individuals who are targeted for blind mule trafficking I think is a tiny, tiny fraction of the total number of people that are crossing the border on a regular basis,” Shirk said. 

But for those few who are targeted and who get caught, their lives are changed in a big way. 

For the man whose case was dismissed in January, he said he’s still recovering from the arrest, trying to put his life back together. He only recently recovered his car from border officials and still hasn’t received his bail money back, he said. 

He said he’ll never cross the border in a vehicle again, only through the pedestrian walking lanes. And even then, he’s stressed and anxious over the process. 

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

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...