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Smugglers now using video games to recruit youth for illicit activity

Online video games have become a new tool for drug cartels to recruit teens
Posted: 2:50 PM, Jan 26, 2022
Updated: 2022-01-27 07:25:34-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Gamers visit virtual worlds of fantasy, adventure or crime, but federal agents say smugglers are now using those online worlds to recruit people for real-world crime.

The United States Department of Homeland Security says gaming led one woman to unknowingly agree to carry meth across the U.S.-Mexico border.

In November, at the Lukeville Port of Entry, agents say they stopped a 25-year-old Phoenix woman named Alyssa Michelle Navarro. They found more than 127 pounds of liquid meth in the car’s gas tank.

Agents say she told them she’d been recruited to bring things like electronics from Phoenix to Mexico, and it began with a contact through an online video game.

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In a sworn statement, a Homeland Security Investigations Agent said, "She stated that in approximately January 2021 she met a man with the user name georgebrr (hereinafter “George”) through Grand Theft Auto, an online gaming platform."

An obtained search warrant revealed the two continued to talk on Snapchat where they discussed giving Navarro a car to take back to the U.S.

Border Patrol Agent Jesus Vasavilbaso confirms Navarro’s case is not the only one. He says cartels have used social media to recruit for quite some time, but recruiting through online video games is a new twist that’s four months to maybe a year old

Federal agents believe the rise in recruiting through gaming platforms seems to connect with the pandemic keeping more kids at home.

"And you know, they're not going to school, they're going to online school, so parents have to go to work. So, they're spending a lot of time on the computer. So, while they're playing video games, then they're playing live," Vasavilbaso said. "So some of the times they get invited to play with other people that they don't know, they know him just by their name that they put on the video game, and that's how these people get recruited."

He says cartels are especially interested in anyone old enough to drive.

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Agent Vasavilbaso adds that parents can protect their children by paying attention to where they go online and who they meet through online video gaming, as well as watching for signs they may be smuggling already.

"There's little things that you can notice," he shared. "Like if your kid has a phone that you didn’t buy for him, they have a brand new phone, they have brand new sneakers, or tennis shoes, or any new items or new games that they're buying and you didn't buy them for them, then that's a red flag."

In their sworn statements, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says besides Snapchat, smugglers often communicate through WhatsApp because law enforcement has a hard time beating WhatsApp's encryption.

Federal agents say they are always trying to stay ahead of the next tool smugglers will use.

For any parents interested in keeping their children safe online, please explore these tips.