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Teens promised quick cash through social media for human smuggling

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Posted at 9:27 AM, Dec 23, 2022
and last updated 2023-01-02 10:16:58-05

In multiple southern states, teenagers and young adults are being promised fast money and extravagant lifestyles through social media, but there's a catch: drive and smuggle non-citizens into the country.

Social media posts by transnational criminal organizations (often called cartels) include imagery of driving, stacks of money, guns, nice cars, and people crowding into vehicles. These posts promise safe driving routes and thousands of dollars.

Teenagers, some as young as 14 years old, have answered their call.

The consequences have led to felony charges, numerous high-speed chases, and, in some cases, death.

“Hit me up, quick, easy money. Need drivers all day.”

Ray Rede, Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Special Agent in Charge, quickly parked his vehicle and exited the vehicle to put on a bulletproof vest. The car is positioned facing Geronimo Trail outside Douglas, Arizona. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security agents are involved in a high-speed pursuit and a failure to yield.

They suspected the driver may be smuggling immigrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

As the pursuit sped past Rede, CBP and HSI agents followed with lights and sirens.

“That’s him,” Rede said.

After a brief chase, the driver being pursued slowed to a stop and agents secured the scene. It is several miles away from Douglas, away from the community.

Cochise County has a population of about 126,000 and is located on the southeast edge of Arizona. The amount of high-speed pursuits, many involving human smuggling, has dramatically increased since the pandemic.

“It's a daily occurrence,” Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said. “The cartels recruit young people, kids, juveniles, all the way to adults through social media platforms and apps.”

The cartels frequently post on various platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.

"They use a lot of social media platforms to target people due to their wide reach,” Anthony Crum said. He is a Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Douglas, Arizona.

“One person can just make an anonymous profile and they can get thousands of people following this profile. And they solicit for these people to come down and drive in to pick up undocumented non-citizens.”

The recruitment process through social media starts off simple.

Cartels post videos with stacks of cash and nice cars to show the lifestyle they live.

“If you want to be like me, then you need to talk to me,” Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre explained.

“Hit me up, quick, easy money. Need drivers all day.”

Each post has hashtags and text that attempt to get users to message the poster directly.

“They’ll post the little image of a baby chick coming out of an egg,” McIntyre said.

The baby chick and chick coming out of an egg are emojis usually signifying “pollos,” or chickens. The undocumented non-citizens are typically called “pollos” or “pollitos” equating them to live cargo being transported.

Sometimes a recruiter will check who has liked their posts then messages them directly. From there the recruitment process gets more involved.

“You have to send them some proof of your identity so they know you’re not a cop,” McIntyre explained.

A location is then sent by the recruiter. If someone does not have a vehicle, they would find the vehicle there. If they have one, they would meet at that location. The conversation then moves to encrypted, anonymous messaging apps like WhatsApp.

Another location is sent by the recruiter along with times.

“All of the messaging in those things occurs on that platform. They’re telling the people where they need to go and get down to the county. ‘Let us know when you’re there; we’ll drop a pin and get there as fast as you can,’” McIntyre explains.

Once a recruited driver arrives at the designated location, typically between two and 10 people will quickly enter the vehicle. They are normally dressed in camouflage outfits. From there, another location is sent to the driver to drop off the migrants.

Once the drop off is complete, they either get paid on the spot or are sent to another location to be paid. Payment is not always guaranteed or complete.

From various social media posts found, the range of payment varies from $500 per person up to $1,500 or more. Some payment estimates posted are based off trips instead of by people, with average estimates from $1,800 to $8,000 per trip. Trips advertised could be one hour to 14 hours.

Aside from dealing directly with a transnational criminal organization that could choose not to pay drivers, there is another potentially dangerous consequence: high-speed pursuits.

“Drivers come down and they get into the situation, and they pick up these undocumented non-citizens,” Crum said. “And then a law enforcement officer tries to initiate a traffic stop on them.”

When law enforcement initiates a traffic stop on a vehicle (typically with lights and sirens on) and a vehicle does not stop, it is a failure to yield, or an unlawful flight from a law enforcement vehicle.

McIntyre explained the situation could become one of panic, and could potentially lead to high-speed pursuits, something the cartel has specific instructions about.

“They are actually even being told by their drivers, as long as you go over 100 miles an hour, they won’t try to catch you anymore.”

“And you’ll see them say, don’t stop,” Ray Rede explained. “Run, don’t stop. Run, run, run, run.”

“If you enter Sierra Vista at 100 miles an hour, you are placing people’s lives in danger,” McIntyre said.

The amount of official failure to yield charges has risen exponentially in the past couple years. In 2020, there were two failure to yield charges. In 2021, there were 15. And as of Dec. 9 2022, there were 101 official failure to yield charges. Law enforcement officials estimate there are between two to ten high-speed pursuits every day, endangering the community.

One specific incident has consistently impacted all officials interviewed.

“There was a pursuit that was engaged and it was a teen or a young adult, and he was involved in a pursuit,” Rede said. “Law enforcement had backed off at this point. He’s making the decision to continue driving dangerously without law enforcement actively pursuing him. And he blows the intersection through Mustang Corners and hits a woman in her 60s on her way to her birthday dinner to meet her family in Sierra Vista.”

“He killed her,” Rede said. “Think about the number of lives that he has influenced, and generations at that moment. Not only that, the people who died are victims, but their families are going to be victims for the rest of their lives.”

"Her presence is missed, every day.”

On Oct. 30, 2021, Wanda Sitoski was killed on the corner of State Route 82 and State Route 90. The intersection is unofficially named “Mustang Corners” by residents.

“You know, it’s one of those things where you still get used to home sounds,” said Edward Fritsch, Sitoski’s son. “Like you wake up expecting to hear somebody rustling through the kitchen, and that’s not there anymore. Where somebody triggers something like a commercial on TV or something else.”

Fritsch pointed out several things around his apartment that remind him of his mother. There is a small statue of an owl that sits on a shelf.

“Owls, she said they’re always watching over you. I got an owl engraved on her headstone,” Fritsch said. “She loved owls.”

He showed paintings he and his mother painted together - identical paintings of a cat sitting on a railing with a witch’s hat. The only difference is the color.

“I’m the blue, she was the purple,” Fritsch explained. “So we went to Fort Huachuca and they have a thing where they have light snacks, and you pay a fee and they teach you how to paint.”

“Her presence is missed, every day I realize,” Fritsch said.

Fritsch’s apartment was tidy with several distinct pictures, mementos and decorations. He sat on a gray armchair and pointed out things in his apartment that held sentimental value: a nurse plaque his mother gave him sits next to an owl that reads “Nurses make a difference to lives,” a dreamcatcher his mother made hung near the kitchen, and her framed picture sits near the door.

Her picture is the first thing you see when you enter his apartment.

“It was her 65th birthday. She wanted her lobster — her steak. So she was getting ready. Curlers in the hair. And I just got home and I’m like, ‘Are you ready?’ And she’s like, ‘No, I’m going to be a little while. Why don’t you leave ahead of me and get the table so we don’t lose it?’ And I’m like, ‘We’re not going to lose it.’ But that was her, you’ve got to be on time. So I left and said, ‘Okay, I’ll meet you there.’”

“And she called me on the phone because she’s like, ‘I don’t exactly remember where the place is.’ I was trying to give her directions and the phone, just was suddenly a very, very loud screech. And the phone went dead.”

“And I called her and called her. I must have called her 30 times and there was no answer. So I’m getting nervous. We ended up not having dinner. I left, tried calling her and tried finding her.”

“So I get back to the house and I have four Benson cops waiting for me and they told me there was a crash. And it was fatal.”

“They didn’t tell me how it happened. Just it was fatal. And I’m like, ‘Are you sure it was her?’ You know, the general questions you always ask. It can’t be her. I got in my car and drove back and I stopped at the scene because I’m like, ‘Tell me this isn’t it. And it was her.”

“So when the chaplain gets there, I get told. I’m like, ‘Can I see her?’ And they said no, that her body is the property of Homeland Security. So they took her. I don’t know where she was.”

“I got a call about four days later from a mortuary that said, your mom has been delivered here. We need you to come down and make arrangements.”

“She simply was going to her 65th birthday to celebrate her next chapter in life. And out of anybody I know, she deserved it. She had a hard life. I’ve seen that woman start from scratch so many times. She would always have two or three jobs then. I mean ones where she’d go to the next one and sleep in the parking lot for an hour and get up and do another 8-hour shift.”

“Always trying to make ends meet. Like she had no lavish lifestyle and she just wanted to retire. She bought about six months before that, eight months, she bought her first brand-new car. And she said, ‘Well, I know this is the one I’m going to keep for the rest of my life. But finally, I have a brand new car that’s just mine.’”

“I mean, we’re talking the simple stuff in life, you know?”

Fritsch gathered a couple more things. He held old graduation pictures of his mother.

For a brief moment, he smiled proudly at her photos but snapped out of it once asked about it.

He disappeared again to grab a blanket his mother was making.

“My mom, she would sit and watch TV, she was making me this blanket. So she was crocheting and she got a decent size done. At this point, you see where she stopped.”

He held the unfinished end of the blanket. “So I’m trying to get somebody to tie that off so I can use it. But it took her a long time. She would do work on this at night.” He dug through a bag and held up a skein of yarn. “She has about four more of these to do, but I think, you know, leave it where it was.”

“He was hired to do a job he shouldn’t have been hired to do.”

“It’s tough, because we get accused of picking on the undocumented individuals coming across when really what we’re after is the smuggling organizations,” said Samuel Petruno, Homeland Security Investigations Group Supervisor.

“The organizations don’t care about these people at all,” Petruno said. “They treat them as cargo, not people. In the vernacular, they’re called 'pollos' which means chickens. And that’s how they’re treated.”

“They’ve got to be fed and watered,” Petruno said. “But that’s really all these people care about. They don’t really care about their safety. We’ve pulled multiple people out of small places. A van will have ten people in it. A house will have close to 50 people in it. They don’t care. They’re stored until they pay, and then they move on.”

“These are tough times,” Rede explains. “These are tough financial times for folks. And the organizations are exploiting that. They’re looking for people with easy money.”

Rede explained another aspect of dealing with transnational criminal organizations – safety.

“We’re starting to see a lot of people showing up who are armed,” Rede said. “They’re coming armed because they have an understanding of what it is to deal with organized crime.”

Felix Mendez was 16 years old when he crashed into Wanda Sitoski’s vehicle. He was transporting 4 non-citizens into the country. On a traffic stop, two escaped his vehicle prior to the crash and were apprehended by a Border Patrol agent.

Arizona Department of Public Safety records indicated there was a 9mm caliber Ruger Semi-automatic pistol found in the front passenger compartment of his Dodge Charger.

The migrants showed reluctance and fear when discussing Mendez according to interview transcripts. They were afraid of cartel retribution.

According to transcripts, one passenger stated “He was concerned that the subject would have his information and retaliate against him...” in reference to Mendez and any possible connection with the cartel.

A transcript of another passenger stated, “She was emotionally distraught and crying the entire time...she was scared for her life and did not want to testify if he was in the court.”

“By engaging in this activity, you are now participating directly with a transnational criminal organization,” McIntyre said. “They don’t consider the people who are going to be placed in your vehicle human beings. They consider them items to be bought and paid for and shuttled from one place to another.”

Anthony Crum showed several printings of social media posts obtained on Snapchat. He explained that the cartel could post 30-40 times a day in the Phoenix area.

“There isn’t one specific platform. We see Facebook, Instagram, everything really. TikTok, even.”

Snapchat, TikTok, and Meta (which includes Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) all responded to our requests about their platforms being used for human smuggling recruitment. Twitter did not respond.

Each platform that responded strictly prohibits illegal activity and specifically points out human smuggling as prohibited. Snapchat, TikTok and Meta also have in-house teams that review posts and work with law enforcement. They all encourage users to report users and posts if there is suspicion of illegal activity.

Since the filming and editing of this report, multiple users and examples captured have either been taken down, suspended, or given a disclaimer on their posts. However, the engagement and comments of these profiles and posts reached thousands before any action was taken.

“Find out it was some 16-year-old kid that was willing to give up his life for, he told me, each person was worth like $1000 or $1500,” Fritsch said, referring to Felix Mendez. “He had four people. So that’s six grand. He put my mom’s value and his value at $6,000. That made me very angry.”

“He’s a young man,” Rede said. “He’s got his entire life in front of him, and now his life is ruined. And he has to live with it.”

“It’s pretty tough, having to go out and deal with individuals who have just been deceased just because a kid was scared,” Petruno said. “Because he was hired to do a job he shouldn’t have been hired to do.”

“He could have stopped when the cops stopped him,” Fritsch said. “But apparently they’re told when you go through Cochise, hit 100 and keep going, they won’t chase you.”

“And they’re actually monitoring the pursuit as it’s happening,” Rede said. “You’ll read it. Very sad. ‘Hey, how come you’re not answering? What’s happening?’ And it’s because they crashed, right?”

Felix Mendez is charged with 14 felony counts, including the first-degree murder of Wanda Sitoski. After the initial traffic stop by the Tombstone Marshals Office, two suspected non-citizen female passengers exited the vehicle and fled. Mendez accelerated away from the stop while CBP pursued them.

Arizona Department of Public Safety records indicate the Tombstone Deputy Marshal pursued Mendez but terminated the pursuit due to the risk posed to the public. Current AZDPS and Border Patrol policy requires the termination of pursuit if it endangers the public.

Interviews conducted by AZDPS stated many witnesses did not see any law enforcement in pursuit of a Dodge Charger, the vehicle Mendez was driving. These witnesses were driving and in the immediate vicinity of the crash, seconds away from the collision.

One witness that did see a pursuit stated “The Border Patrol was chasing the black car on westbound 82. The Border Patrol backed off the pursuit prior to the intersection (about 500 feet before).”

However, one witness states a Border Patrol agent was “right behind the Charger” with “lights and sirens on.” She was about 1,500 feet from the crash and watched the scene unfold.

Arizona DPS Trooper transcripts state this witness watched Border Patrol agents station with lights and sirens on waiting for the Charger. The witness stated she saw the Charger drive westbound on State Route 82 at “approximately 120 mph or more,” followed by a Border Patrol agent with lights and sirens on. The agents stationed near her then pursued the Charger, then she heard the collision.

An official CBP statement does not mention any pursuit, but that a "Border Patrol agent observed the vehicle near the intersection of Highway 82 and Highway 90; the vehicle crashed into another vehicle, resulting in the death of the occupant.”

The witness who refutes this said, “Wwhat bothers her is that Border Patrol said they stopped pursuit, and they did not.”

“You look at him and he’s a kid.”

After the high-speed pursuit near Geronimo Trail ended, Rede explained the incident.

“So I spoke to the two non-citizens,” Rede said. “It was a family. It was a grandmother, the children’s mom, and two children, one adult, one juvenile male and one juvenile female. When they tried to pull him over, he accelerated to up over 90 miles an hour. And then he finally decided to stop.”

Both Border Patrol agents and Homeland Security Agents detained the driver of the vehicle and handcuffed him.

“So it’s a good thing that he stopped before we got into the community,” Ray said. “Because once we get into the community, we have to outweigh the risk the pursuing versus not pursuing anymore, right?”

The occupants of the vehicle were wearing camouflage clothing and led out of the vehicle. They told Rede they were not wearing any seatbelts and were afraid.

The details of this incident are still under investigation.

“They’re facing severe jail terms,” Rede said. “And a lot of times what I say is the jail time is the least of it. You’re 17 years old. You’re 16 years old. You’re being charged as an adult for vehicular manslaughter or negligent homicide. All that apart, you’ve got to live with that for the rest of your life.”

Searching specific phrases or hashtags on various social media platforms reveals recruitment posts from cartels within seconds. There are countless respondents inquiring about the posts. Due to some of the innocuous hashtags on these posts, they can reach a wider, unsuspecting audience.

“This is high-level felony stuff,” McIntyre said. “Whether it’s from the federal law side or from the state law side, when you’re endangering the citizens of this community, endangering your passengers and fleeing from law enforcement.”

Sheriff Dannels pleads with parents to know and understand what their kids are doing.

“To all the parents out there, know where your kids are at,” Dannels said. “We have more incidents where we are catching kids down here, and we call the parents who have no idea they’re in the southeast corner of the state of Arizona smuggling.”

In a now-deleted social media post by suspected minors, the video showed themselves in a detention waiting area inside the Sierra Vista Police Department with the caption “caught us OTM” with chicken emojis. The post was liked over 65,000 times at the time the post was recorded.

Comments and replies range from serious discussions on the best routes for human smuggling to jokes to others discussing being caught and to some asking the user where they got some of their clothes in admiration.

“If you can just put yourself in the mindset of that 17-year-old, that 16-year-old, he’s driving mom’s car, the adrenaline dump, stress, you’re not thinking clearly at that point,” Rede said.

“And all of a sudden you just have these five or six people, who you would never let into your car, jump into your car, and now you’re driving and all of a sudden a marked law enforcement unit gets behind you, and those red and blue lights go on. I mean, how do you handle that when you’re - you still have a developing brain, right? You’re going to make bad decisions.”

“You look at him and he’s a kid. He’s a freaking 16-year-old kid,” Fritsch said, referring to Felix Mendez.

“People do die and people are dying,” McIntyre said. “And people are getting seriously hurt with forever life-changing injuries.”

Sheriff Dannels said, “You’re working with an international criminal organization. When they partake in this, it’s dangerous. So please, parents, engage with law enforcement. Help us on that and let’s try and stop this behavior.”

In May 2022, after growing concern from migrant advocacy groups, lawmakers, CBP agents and the community, a new policy on pursuit would be developed. Commissioner Chris Magnus, head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told The Associated Press he will publicly reveal the new policy “soon.” Magnus admits that their current policy puts the public and their own agents in danger.

“This isn’t about an immigration issue,” McIntyre clarified. “It’s about a very dangerous criminal organization that will do anything to anyone to make sure they continue to move their product. At some point, you have to pay the price for that. And if you do it here, I’m the guy who’s going to guarantee that you will pay the price.”

Felix Mendez and his attorney declined to give an interview. His pretrial and settlement hearings are scheduled for early January.

As the issue gains national attention, outgoing Arizona Governor Doug Ducey sent a letter to leaders of social media companies in May 2022, urging them to better police and monitor their platforms. And in September 2022, the bipartisan “Combating Cartels On Social Media Act” was introduced by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee.

“I guess my big question would be, was this all worth it?” Fritsch said. “You destroyed your life. You destroyed my mom’s life. My brother’s, my sister’s. All for six grand.”

Nearly a year after his mother’s death, Fritsch died on Oct. 2 after battling colon cancer for more than two years. After his interview in August, he expressed happiness that his mother would not be forgotten.

Fritsch’s friends and family launched a GoFundMe page to help raise money for his funeral and memorial costs.

STATEMENTS

TikTok Spokesperson, Aug. 25

"TikTok strictly prohibits content that seeks to promote or facilitate criminal activities, including smuggling, which we would remove from our platform. We also work with third-party intelligence firms to bolster our defenses and make reports to law enforcement as appropriate.”

I would also point to our Community Guidelines in case you need more detail: https://www.tiktok.com/community-guidelines?lang=en#32
Snapchat Spokesperson, Aug. 23

Using Snapchat for any illegal activity violates our policies and is prohibited.

  • We have zero tolerance for abuse on Snapchat, and we encourage people to immediately report illegal content and activity to law enforcement, as well as to us.

  • We offer easy in-app reporting tools. Even though Snaps delete by default, we’re able to preserve reported content to investigate it.

  • As part of our ongoing work to help keep our community safe, we have an in-house Law Enforcement Operations team dedicated to reviewing and responding to law enforcement requests for data related to their investigations. We also have strong relationships with law enforcement and other experts in a range of areas, and are able to leverage their assistance in detecting harmful content and accounts. We are constantly looking for opportunities to connect with experts and enhance our detection abilities.
  • Our global Trust and Safety teams also work around the clock to quickly investigate any reports and take appropriate action.

  • We have built in protections for teenagers in particular:
  • We require teens to mutually accept each other as friends in order to begin communicating. By default, Snapchatters under 18 must opt-in to being friends in order to start chatting with each other —similar to real life where friendships are mutual.

  • We ban public profiles for minors and friend lists are private. We intentionally make it harder for strangers to find minors by banning public profiles for people under 18.

  • We limit discoverability for teens to people they likely know. Teens only show up as a "suggested friend" or in search results in limited instances, like if they have mutual friends in common.

  • We have safeguards against trying to circumvent our protections for minors. We prevent younger Snapchatters with existing accounts from updating their birthday to an age of 18 or above. We also use age-gating tools to prevent minors from viewing age-regulated content and ads.
Meta Spokesperson

New Meta policy guidelines were provided on Dec. 7:

https://transparency.fb.com/policies/community-standards/human-exploitation/

Initial Meta spokesperson statement, provided Aug. 26:

  • We prohibit the facilitation of any form of human trafficking across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, and we don’t allow providing or offering human smuggling specifically. 
  • Specifically, Meta has and will continue to forbid coyotes, criminal organizations and other human smugglers from promotng their services. 
  • We invest in technology and people to proactively identify it and remove it from our platform whenever we find it. 
  • Human smuggling can only be tackled with strong dedicated efforts amongst policymakers, civil society, academia, law enforcement and companies — so we work closely with experts and support education initiatives. 
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Dec. 9:

“On October 30, 2021, Border Patrol agents from the Tucson Sector were involved with the Tombstone Marshal’s Office in an incident regarding a failure to yield by a suspected human smuggling load on Highway 82, just south of the Highway 80 Checkpoint. The Marshal and the agent observed the vehicle attempt to avoid the checkpoint and initiated a vehicle stop. The vehicle yielded temporarily. Two migrants exited the vehicle and fled into the brush. The Border Patrol agent pursued the migrants on foot; both migrants were apprehended. The Marshal attempted to make contact with the driver who fled from the scene in the vehicle. Later, another Border Patrol agent observed the vehicle near the intersection of Highway 82 and Highway 90; the vehicle crashed into another vehicle, resulting in the death of the occupant. The fleeing driver and two other migrants suffered minor injuries from the crash. For more information, please contact Homeland Security Investigations, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and the Tombstone Marshal’s Office.”