EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - Police in the U.S. border city of El Paso can thank criminals in Mexico for ridding them of one serious problem -- teenage drug smuggling.
Extreme drug war violence in the neighboring Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez is scaring U.S. teenagers off from bringing drugs over the border, once a common crime.
In 2001, 162 teens -- or more than three a week -- were arrested in El Paso trying to smuggle drugs into the United States, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But in the last four years, shootings, beheadings and other violent crimes have surged in Ciudad Juarez, and the number of teens caught smuggling drugs into El Paso has slowed to barely a trickle. So far this year, just three have been arrested.
“There’s a huge deterrent with the fear factor of what’s going on in Juarez,” said Marc Marquez, deputy chief of juvenile services for El Paso County. “Kids have wised up, they don’t want to take that risk for $500.”
A heavy U.S. federal police presence also acts as a deterrent, helping El Paso to build a reputation for order and stability despite its proximity to Ciudad Juarez.
A major point of entry into the United States for powerful Mexican cartels since the 1990s, El Paso was voted the safest U.S. city of its size last year.
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his army-led crackdown on powerful drug cartels in late 2006, about 38,000 people have been killed across the country, roughly a quarter of them in Ciudad Juarez.
Americans are increasingly aware of the horrors south of the border, and authorities are using it to their advantage.
At one recent presentation at a school for children in east El Paso, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents spelled out the risks of a violent death at the hands of the cartels.
In an outreach program dubbed “Operation Detour,” a video showed a young drug cartel foot soldier explaining how the gangs douse their victims with gasoline and kill them by burning them alive in barrels in a so-called “guiso” -- Spanish for stew.
“Once you start working for them there’s no jury, there’s not going to be a trial. If they even think you’ve betrayed them in any way, all there’s going to be is a hole in the ground with you in it,” Border Patrol agent Marco Camacho told the rapt audience of 6th to 12th graders, as one mother wept.
Joshua, a 15-year-old who watched the presentation, was struck by the message. “It’s like they say in the video, it’s not worth losing your life over,” he said.
Experts say cartels offer anything from $200 to $2,000 for running drugs over the border -- a sizable sum even in El Paso, a city of some 700,000 where one in four live in poverty.
Lured by the prospect of easy cash, minors much younger than Joshua were among those regularly smuggling contraband a just few years ago, with drugs hidden in bags, strapped to their bodies and crammed into secret vehicle compartments.
One case that really stood out for El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal was that of a 10-year-old boy who walked up to the border with cocaine hidden in a teddy bear backpack.
“He was so small that his feet didn’t touch the ground when he sat in the courtroom,” she recalled.
Editing by Robin Emmott and Kieran Murray