A pilot program in Cochise County charging teen drug smugglers as adults is helping change the way our border communities fight cartel violence. It's been one year since "Operation immediate consequences" started, and it is working to stop drug cartels from abusing teens as drug mules.
Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre started this program that combines legal repercussions with educational outreach. He said it's been successful in starting a conversation in schools and setting a new example for teens that any cartel involvement will not be tolerated in our border communities.
Teens as young as 14 have been caught carrying loads of drugs like this across the border, and until one year ago, there was no real consequence when they got caught.
"Essentially they had a catch and release program going on which was causing a great deal of frustration between the agents and in the community because essentially nothing was being done," said McIntyre.
"Operation Immediate Consequences" is changing that. It allows teens carrying drugs to be charged as adults in an effort to stop them from getting involved in cartel activities. The teens can accept a plea deal with 18 months in jail. The case can be remanded to a juvenile court. If the case is brought to trial, the minimum sentence is three years.
"The legal consequences are really small when compared to the tragedies that these kids suffer at the hands of these cartels," said McIntyre.
So far, 65 teens have been arrested smuggling everything from marijuana to heroin. All have accepted the plea deal. Mcintyre said all teens are guaranteed a lawyer and interpreter.
But, the program is about more than incarceration. "We are going out to the schools along the border communities and educating the kids about the realities of what's going to happen to them if they become involved in cartel activities," said McIntyre.
The education shows middle and high schoolers examples of what cartels do to smugglers who lose a load of drugs, and since the program started, McIntyre said he's seen fewer teens getting involved.
"There's been a shift to drive through loads down in our area rather than these backpacker loads," McIntyre said. "What that tells me is that there's frustration on the southside about how to move product and get a substantial quantity up into the states, so they're having to change their tactics."
For those who question teen incarceration, McIntyre says it's important to set an example for future generations. "If I have to send you to prison so that the rest of the people...do nothing but talk about how you went to prison because you made that stupid choice, and that keeps them from doing it, then I'll do it. We have to think as a community what are we and aren't we going to allow," McIntyre said.
In one year, McIntyre said he credits this program with a successful start. "A major victory that I see out of it, is since the onset of our program and the education component, we've only charges two kids from border communities on the north side of the border...only 2 out of almost a year."
He said the long term goal is to force the cartels to stop using children to run drugs across the border altogether.