Children, mothers, elderly people -- federal officials say they're seeing more and more "unlikely" smuggling cases in San Diego. NBC 7's Candice Nguyen digs into the issue and what's being done about it.
The leader of a family-run drug trafficking organization that was known to recruit young women to smuggle drugs into the U.S. was sentenced Monday to 15 years in prison.
Jesus Manuel “Chuy” Rivera-Villareal, 32, of Corona pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to import meth, cocaine and heroin.
He hired at least five young women from Riverside to smuggle cars filled with drugs, from Mexico into the U.S., believing agents at the border crossing were less likely to suspect a woman.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials say over the last several years, criminals on both sides of the border have been targeting “unlikely” smugglers to sneak drugs and people into the U.S.
Statistics provided by Homeland Security Investigations reveal, since 2010, 681 teenagers were arrested for smuggling at the Otay Mesa, San Ysidro and Tecate border crossings.
Currently, meth is the most common drug smuggled.
According to Deputy Special Agent Joe Garcia, teenage girls are the most common smugglers for that drug.
“The cartels are going to recruitment of these teenagers because they’re trying to get away from any sort of stereotypes they think law enforcement may have as who would be a likely courier,” Garcia told NBC 7.
“We’ve seen 14-year-olds, and we’ve seen people in their late 70’s. You have men, women, kids. You have grandparents, uncle aunts. Anybody.”
NBC 7 spoke to three different women living in San Diego who were arrested for smuggling. They shared their stories to educate the public about the problem.
Melissa Stover, 23, says she always looked up to her father.
“He was like my best friend. He always took care of me. Always provided for me,” the Vista resident told NBC 7.
Her father became ill a few years ago, and Stover says she needed money. She had just moved out of her family’s home to live on her own.
Stover says her father recognized she was going through a hard time and told her “If you need to be caught up, here’s a financial opportunity for you.”
He told her about a friend he had that could offer her a paid assignment. All she had to do was drive a car.
Stover admits the offer sounded suspicious, but she was at a point where she’d do almost anything for money.
So Stover and one of her friends agreed to help in an operation that involved driving illegal immigrants from close to the border north to just past Interstate 8 in San Diego County.
“I woke up in my house that morning and like the car was already outside of the house waiting for us to take it," she said.
Stover says they also provided her a phone and map of where to go. That morning, when she and her friend made it to a checkpoint, U.S. Border Patrol agents pulled their vehicle over.
“They said can you open the trunk and we looked at each other and knew we were in trouble,” she said.
Stover was arrested at that checkpoint and admits what she did was wrong.
Her father passed away last January. Stover says she’s still dealing what happened.
She says she knows first-hand how criminals recruit young people in San Diego.
“I feel like they’re targeting us because we don’t know what we’re getting into,” she said. “They kind of take advantage of the innocence, and I feel like that’s what happened to me.”
Samantha Kurdilla, 23, has a full-time job in downtown San Diego. That may not be a lot to some people, but she says to her, it means the world.
Just a few years ago, Kurdilla was a heroin addict. Her addiction led to her arrest at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in a case that gained international attention.
Kurdilla’s mother passed away when she was 12 years old. She says that emptiness contributed to her addiction. When her drug dealer asked her to travel from Pennsylvania to San Diego last year, she agreed.
“I was just living to use. I had no other purpose in life at that point,” Kurdilla told NBC 7.
Kurdilla says she was told they were “going to try new drugs.” At that point, she had no idea he wanted to use her to smuggle cocaine across the border.
The two met up at a Tijuana bar where she says she shot up and almost overdosed.
“And then he said we need to get this across the border and you need to pack this inside you. I still had no idea that was the plan was,” Kurdilla said. “I'm walking arm and arm with him [at the pedestrian crossing] and as soon as dog sniffs me he tries to walk away and say he wasn't with me.”
After Kurdilla was arrested her story rivaled tabloid headlines.
In a rare move, especially given the seriousness of her case, she was allowed to enter into the Southern District of California's Alternative to Prison Solutions. The program only exists in San Diego where upon completion, felony charges are dismissed. Judges, prosecutors and the government agreed she deserved a second chance. Even those prosecuting her say she is doing a phenomenal job.
“I call them my A-Team, the prosecutor my lawyer, the judge. Everyone looks at the court in a negative way but all they’ve ever done is helped me," she said.
Kurdilla has kept clean ever since. She has a stable job and for the first time in a long time, she says she wants to live. Kurdilla is even expected to graduate early.
NBC 7 asked what she thinks her mom would think of her after all she’s been through.
“She'd be so proud of me. I know she’s always with me and I believe she had a lot to do with the place I am at right now,” she said.
Escondido resident Lisa Dolan, 50, is a mother of two young women. She is not someone anyone would think would be arrested for smuggling. Her story is a little different from others. She says she did not do it for the money.
“I have a hard time saying no,” she told NBC 7. Dolan says a woman she met through a friend told her about a man in Mexico whose daughter was undergoing heart surgery in the U.S. and he wanted to be there with her.
Dolan says that person took advantage of her emotions, so much so that she plotted the operation herself. She rented a van, pretended to work for an animal rescue group and drove to Tijuana.
She say when she got to the location where she was going to pick up the man, she didn’t even get out of the car.
“They did it all. which was should’ve been a red flag,” she said.
Dolan was arrested at the border and faces felony charges.
Watch "Unlikely Smugglers: Part II" for a look at what's being done to combat the problem on NBC 7 News at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 13.