Drug cartels have been relentless in their quest to get narcotics across the border. They've used drug tunnels, cars loaded with bricks of cocaine and even narco-catapults that fling airborne packages over the fence.

But their latest weapon might make your stomach churn:

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the number of kids coming across the Mexican border with drugs has skyrocketed in recent years. But here's the kicker:

Many if not most of those teens are American-born students recruited from Southern California high schools.

So says ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack, who tells the Weekly:

Most of them are American born. Some of them are naturalized citizens. Typically they're recruited in the South Bay [San Diego] area school districts. A lot of them do have family ties to Tijuana.

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She says that ICE has been reaching out to San Diego high and middle schools, making presentations to warn students that this is serious business.

The kids, from 13 up to 18, might be told by smugglers that if they're caught there will be no consequences because they're too young, Mack says: But most who have been caught face felony charges and many have been convicted. Mack:

There's a rumor they get told by recruiters that because they're under age nothing's going to happen to them. In most cases they're convicted of felonies.

Because quantities are limited — the goods are often strapped to their bodies as they walk through the pedestrian border crossing — most of those caught are carrying compact hard drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, Mack said.

Land of milk and honey: The border.; Credit: otzberg

Land of milk and honey: The border.; Credit: otzberg

In fact 100 of 190 teen-smuggler cases at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in San Diego last year involved such hard drugs, she said.

That number, 190, by the way, is a tenfold increase in the number of kids caught crossing the border since 2008, when the figure was only 19.

Mack says teens do it for quick, easy money — “to buy an iPod.”

But some of the cash seems serious enough — up to $1,000 for a trip from Tijuana to San Diego.

While many of the suspects have Mexican ties, some don't even speak Spanish, Mack said: And they're being recruited on campuses by the cartels themselves.

[@dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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