More than one million vehicles pass through the San Ysidro Port of Entry each month. Experts say an unknown number of those drivers are unwittingly carrying drugs into the U.S. from Mexico – and some are being arrested for it.
“Blind mule” smuggling – where drug traffickers plant drugs on unsuspecting border crossers before they enter the U.S. – often targets frequent border crossers, especially those with consistent crossing patterns. Experts say the smuggling strategy has been around for decades.
And if you live in Tijuana and cross often, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the term blind mule, or “mula ciega” in Spanish. Maybe you’ve read news articles or heard stories from family members or friends.
Despite those cautionary tales, many Tijuanenses and other residents still don’t take precautions, said Victor Clark Alfaro, a San Diego State University lecturer and Tijuana-based organized crime expert.
Here are three tips from defense attorneys, officials and crime experts for making sure your trip across the border – whether a daily commute or special occasion – is a safe one.
1. Check your vehicle before crossing
Inspect your car and its compartments for any signs of tampering or obvious packages that you don’t recognize. Check the trunk, where a spare tire would normally fit, in storage compartments and underneath the car using a mirror.
Traffickers have been known to hide drugs inside of car tires or underneath the car, secured to the frame with magnets. Other times, the drugs are simply sitting in the trunk of the car when customs officials find them.
Experts also said to park your vehicle inside a locked garage whenever possible.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, also recommended travelers “double check the contents of their person, passengers, baggage, and vehicles for prohibited and restricted items.”
2. Say something if you see something suspicious
Report it to local authorities if you find evidence of tampering or a package in your car.
José Fernando Sánchez González, security and citizen protection secretary for the city of Tijuana, said he often receives reports like this. Residents have told him they searched their cars after hearing their dogs barking late at night or seeing suspicious people near their cars through video cameras.
Travelers should also notify customs officials at the border if they think they might have been targeted by drug traffickers, according to CBP.
3. Be aware of potential scams
Drug traffickers have also targeted border crossers through online scams soliciting U.S. citizens or Mexican nationals with U.S. visas for jobs.
Russell Babcock, a San Diego defense attorney and author of a fictional book about a blind mule, said those scams can look legitimate from the onset, but then traffickers sneak drugs into the person’s car or some other way while using a distraction.
Sometimes those jobs ask drivers to bring across equipment or perform certain jobs in the U.S. that require crossing back and forth, Babcock said.
George Siddell, another federal defense attorney who’s handled blind mule cases, advises border crossers in Mexico to never entrust their vehicles to mechanics or even family members.
Giving that kind of access, even to loved ones, to your vehicle can open yourself up to trouble.
“Family can have drug or money problems where they are willing to risk their loved one’s liberty,” Siddell said.
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