Susana Real right, talks about her son Fernando Real in their home, Thursday March 22, 2013, Agua Prieta, Sonora 

Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star

AGUA PRIETA, Sonora - Fernando Real hated to see his mother work minimum-wage jobs and barely scrape enough to pay the $100 rent for the room they shared.

To not have enough money to buy new shoes.

To be so close to schools across the border but not be able to enroll.

"Sometimes we have food in the fridge, sometimes we don't," says the 17-year-old. "It's frustrating."

When men he met at a club in Agua Prieta asked the U.S.-born Fernando if he wanted to make easy money, he didn't hesitate.

When he did start to second-guess his decision, he had an AK-47 pointed at him and was told, "This is not a game."

His mind was made up.

He became one of tens of thousands of kids in Mexico employed in some way by drug traffickers, according to the Child Rights Network in Mexico, a coalition of more than 60 civil organizations.

The act of recruiting minors to smuggle drugs into the U.S. is not new, but the practice is growing in Arizona.

Monday afternoon, Nogales Border Patrol agents working at the Interstate 19 checkpoint south of Amado caught four juveniles trying to smuggle heroin on a commercial shuttle.

The agents referred the shuttle for inspection and searched the bags of a 15-year-old passenger who "behaved nervously during questioning," the news released said, and found bundles of heroin.

After everyone on the shuttle was checked, agents had four teenage girls, between 15 and 17 years old in custody with bundles of heroin tucked into their waistbands. The drugs weighed nearly 8 pounds and had an estimated street value of $90,000.

The teens - two U.S. citizens and two Mexican nationals- were turned over to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office.

The number of juveniles prosecuted for smuggling drugs through the ports of Arizona jumped from 67 in fiscal year 2008 to 125 in 2009. The numbers have ebbed and flowed since but have not dropped below 100, reaching a high of 157 in 2011.

And in between the ports of entry, the number of Border Patrol apprehensions involving minors charged with a violation of federal drug laws nearly doubled from 117 in fiscal year 2011 to 226 in 2012. There is no comparable data for previous years, Customs and Border Protection officials said.

Most of the kids are 16 and 17. Some are as young as 12.

There's not a good way to document the extent of the problem, said David Shirk, associate professor of political science at the University of San Diego, but anecdotal evidence shows teens in Mexico have been recruited for organized activity more frequently in recent years.

Not only are they more easily influenced than adults because they are still developing, he said, but the bad economy has made things more difficult.

Invincible feeling

For more than a year, Fernando helped drive loads to safe houses in the region and transported "pollos," people who crossed the border illegally.

He posed for pictures with stacks of money.

He felt untouchable.

He talks with a sense of pride of being able to evade CBP officers at the ports of entry and keeping his cool as Border Patrol agents suspected him.

"I felt I was Superman, that I was invincible," he said from his home in Agua Prieta.

But his luck started to run out last year.

He was first caught in February 2012 near Bisbee with five people without legal status inside a car he was driving.

He noticed the Border Patrol was following him and tried to lose the vehicle by driving through some side streets and telling the group to keep their heads down, but one of them didn't do as he was told, and the Border Patrol agent spotted them.

He was turned over to Child Protective Services and with the help of the Mexican Consulate returned to his mother in Agua Prieta.

His mother had no idea what he had gotten himself into.

"I felt like my world fell apart," Susana Real said.

Mother tries to help

Real tries to be her son's friend - to show him the good and bad and let him see for himself what that will do to him.

If he doesn't stop, she said, "I'm going to end up seeing him dead or in prison."

Real blames herself.

She moved to Oregon in 1985, where two of her children, including Fernando, were born and went to school. She decided to return to Mexico in 2009 to help take care of her mother in the western Mexican state of Nayarit.

She was living illegally in the United States, and it had gotten a lot harder to find work, so she figured it was for the best.

After spending all of her savings on her mother's care, she heard about Agua Prieta, a small town of about 70,000 people that has largely escaped the drug violence plaguing many border towns in Mexico, and decided to move there with her youngest son.

But life has been a lot harder than she expected.

Fernando hasn't been able to find a job across the border in Douglas. He only finished middle school in Oregon and can't enroll in high school because his mother needs to sign the paperwork, and she can't cross.

She has worked in hotels, restaurants and food trucks.

But it's not enough.

Another incident

Just this February, Real got another call about Fernando.

This time he was pulled out of a commercial shuttle van with 3 pounds of marijuana strapped to his back.

Once again, he was turned over to CPS and returned to his mother.

"I would like for the authorities to lock him up to see if he understands," she said, with tears in her eyes.

Fernando swears this is it for him. It won't happen again.

God and the threat of prison have made him change his mind, he says.

"You start doing it because there's a need, but then you get used to it and you just don't care about the dangers," he said.

At one point he made up to $1,500 in just one day.

He would buy $300 shoes, $60 shirts, only to give them away.

He bought a 1993 Pontiac Sunfire and a 1993 Jeep Cherokee - he totaled both of them.

He only has a few shirts and pants to show for all the money he made.

Used for transport

Juveniles are used as foot mules, carrying backpacks full of marijuana through the desert or harder drugs with higher street value through ports of entry.

There are also those, like Fernando, used as levantadores - to pick up loads of people or drugs and transport them to stash houses.

The juvenile foot mules who walk through the desert usually don't have legal status, Doyle Johnstun, chief criminal deputy county attorney in Cochise County.

The levantadores are usually U.S. citizens or permanent residents who speak English and can blend in more easily.

Most of the smugglers are adults, he said, but there are always a few who are underage.

Cochise County prosecutes see roughly one juvenile drug smuggler every three weeks, Johnstun said. But that number rises to several a week during harvest time for marijuana.

In nearby Santa Cruz County, Matt Jasper, the county attorney who handles juvenile cases, said there seems to be a spike in juveniles getting caught at the ports of entry with small amounts of hard drugs, such as meth or heroin, hidden on their body.

"Most of the people we prosecute have some kind of status here, citizens or at least green-card holders," he said.

During the last nine months, Santa Cruz County has had seven prosecutions of unlawful possession of narcotic drugs for sale involving heroin; 10 unlawful possessions of dangerous drugs for sale, nine of which were meth; 10 unlawful possession of marijuana cases, seven involving several hundred pounds in a vehicle; and a couple of money laundering cases.

To him, those seem like normal numbers, he said.

easy to get involved

It's easy for any kid in Santa Cruz County to get involved in drug smuggling, he said, because it's so close to the border; there isn't much to do; and it's a small town.

"If they wanted to do that, they could do it. They would know someone who would know someone who could introduce them," he said.

Programs aimed at youth can be part of the solution to the juvenile drug smuggling problem, said Terry Goddard, former attorney general of Arizona.

In 2009, when he was attorney general, his office invested money in programs such as Boys and Girls clubs in border communities to help deter young people from getting involved in drug smuggling.

The Border Patrol also has a community outreach program, Operation Detour, that targets middle- and high-school students to educate them on the dangers and consequences of drug smuggling.

Put into perspective, Goddard said, using minors to smuggle drugs into the country is not a big part of the cartels' operations.

"If this was a concentrated or focused operation, we would expect larger numbers," he said.

Still, to Jasper, it's "particularly obnoxious."

"It's bad enough to do that, but when you take someone easily influenced, more susceptible to coercion or trickery, you're taking a vulnerable part of the population and getting them to do your dirty work for you," he said.

And "as long as you have people desperate for money and people who really want to buy this product, you are probably never going to shut it off completely," said Johnstun.

Fernando is waiting to turn 18 in July to get his high-school equivalency diploma and enlist in the Army. He credits his mother for wanting to turn his life around.

"If my mom hadn't stuck by my side," he said, "I probably wouldn't be here telling you this story."

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at


Juveniles prosecuted for smuggling narcotics through Arizona ports of entry:

2008: 67

2009: 125

2010: 101

2011: 157

2012: 110

Border Patrol apprehensions of juveniles charged with violation of federal drug laws:

Tucson Sector

2011: 117

2012: 226

2013 (through March 31): 93

Yuma Sector

2011: 0

2012: 0

2013 (through March 31): 4

Note: All dates are by fiscal year

Source: Customs and Border Protection

"Sometimes we have food in the fridge, sometimes we don't. It's frustrating."

Fernando Real, 17

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo