“Loaded” With Illicit Cargo, Unknowing U.S.-Mexico Drivers Cross Into Nightmare

 “Loaded” With Illicit Cargo, Unknowing U.S.-Mexico Drivers Cross Into Nightmare

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Chih. Mex.--Jesus Eduardo Villanueva was unemployed until one day reading a local newspaper he thought he found a perfect new job. He met all the requirements: He owned a vehicle with a valid permit to cross the border through the express line; he had a valid visa to go back and forth between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. The pay would be generous and all he had to do was to be a messenger of hand held-size packages.

He was immediately hired.

For a few days Villanueva did as he was told--always by cell phone. He picked packages to be delivered in El Paso. Occasionally -- his wife says he told her -- on his way back he brought packages to Mexico. Always honest, his wife asserts, Villanueva never dared to open them and promptly delivered them to the specified address without any problem.

“He was very happy,’’ recalled Adriana Valtierra, 27, as she held their 3-month-old son. “He even told me he had never had a job where he was promptly paid without even seeing his boss,” she added.
Then, two weeks after starting his new job, Villanueva was arrested. U.S. immigration officers discovered that one of his tires was packed with marijuana. That was four months ago, and he has not seen his infant child since.

“Too Good To Be True”

Many more in this hard-luck Mexican city have met the same fate, and many more -- part of the vast population of the unemployed -- remember the temptation: the sudden flurry of newspaper ads offering immediate employment. No background checks.

“It was too good to be true,” said Ignacio Saldivar, 33, a U.S. legal resident living in El Paso, as he waited his turn to visit a nephew held in a Mexican jail. The nephew was waiting for trial after being caught on the Mexican side with a neatly packed box filled with ammunition.

“I even thought of applying myself [for the job], but decided to wait since there was such demand,” he added. Now, said Saldivar, he feels lucky he didn’t take the bait.

Teachers, doctors, students and citizens from all walks of life are now awaiting trial in the U.S. or Mexico for smuggling drugs, money or arms. Many claim to have been couriers without full knowledge of what their work involved. The trend has become so common that last week the U.S. government announced a multi-agency task force to investigate such incidents.

There had been a public outcry after the arrest, on the Mexican side, of Ana Isela Martinez. The well-respected El Paso teacher lived in Ciudad Juarez, but crossed every day into the United States to work. She was found at a Mexican Army checkpoint with about 100 pounds of marijuana in her car’s luggage compartment.

From the beginning, the teacher declared she had no idea who had planted the drugs, or how they ended up in her car. A recent investigation by U.S. authorities declared her a victim of loading —stashing contraband cargo in a vehicle without the driver’s knowledge.

Still, Mexican authorities alleging “adherence to the legal process,” have refused to set her free.

A Trend Not So New

This so-called crime began to get public attention last January when Justus Opot, a psychotherapist for the El Paso Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center, and co-worker, Marisol Perez -- both U.S. residents visiting Juarez -- were arrested and detained for several days. They discovered 100 pounds of marijuana in the trunk of Perez's car and reported it to Mexican federal police officers.

In another case, a student at the University in El Paso was arrested with drugs as he crossed the border in his car. He claimed he was unaware of his cargo and declared himself innocent. He was cleared of charges last May.

U.S. authorities in El Paso declared last week that they believe many such incidents are being perpetrated by a particular Mexican gang and have asked Mexican authorities for permission to investigate similar cases south of the border.

But while these type of cases had been detected for some years, it wasn’t until U.S. authorities denounced the trend last week that Mexican authorities agreed to mount a public campaign, warning border crossers to check their vehicles and what they are carrying before they cross in either direction.

Mexican officials have also warned drivers not to make stops at public places or leave their vehicle unattended on their way to the border, since it seems that this is the opportunity criminals are awaiting to load the vehicle with drugs.

In the past, there were instances reported of unsuspected drivers being highjacked at El Paso shopping centers, in order to allow bandits to unload their illegal cargo that the drivers had unknowingly carried.
Only now, after the local public protest in favor of the teacher’s arrest, has this issue gotten public attention from both sides of the border.

In any case, because of the nature of the international crime, those caught in either country have a difficult claim of "innocence" to prove. For the most part, those arrested on the Mexican side face a harder time, especially if they are poor and can’t afford a private and competent legal defense.
Not surprisingly, those arrested by U.S. authorities face the prospect of a much fairer trial.