Federal border agents say Mexican drug cartels are heavily recruiting American citizens as drug mules on a scale not seen before.
Officials say it’s a direct result of travel restrictions prohibiting Mexicans from crossing the border -- restrictions put in place during the pandemic and still in effect now.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have already seized more than 92,000 pounds of drugs from cars crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. between October 2020 and May. Officials tell NBC 7 Investigates, in the vast majority of those cases the person behind the wheel is a U.S. citizen.
CBP records show that agents have already arrested more than 2,400 Americans between the start of the year and late March. In comparison, over that same time period, agents arrested just 361 Mexican citizens for drug trafficking.
U.S. citizens have topped drug smuggling arrests for the last several years, but the disparity has never been this drastic.
“That is concerning, because that makes it a little more difficult for us,” said Carlos Silva, Assistant Port Director at San Ysidro for CBP.
Catching American smugglers is harder for his agents, according to Silva, because they'er accustomed to looking for a totally different profile.
“That increases the amount of wait times indirectly because now we have to spend a little bit more time on a lot more people,” Silva said.
And those wait times have been increasing in recent months. Some days it can take up to six hours to cross into the U.S.
Silva said the surge in Americans caught with drugs hidden inside their cars is a direct result of the travel ban on Mexicans allowed to cross into the U.S. enforced during the pandemic.
“So that limited a lot of the Mexican nationals that crossed,” Silva explained. “So now the drug smuggling operations have to recruit a bit different.”
In one recent arrest, court documents describe how a CBP dog sniffed what amounted to more than two pounds of methamphetamine, 41 pounds of heroin, 50 pounds of cocaine, and 22 pounds of fentanyl inside a woman's engine bay.
In another recent arrest, a man told agents he was trying to smuggle 59 pounds of meth and eight pounds of fentanyl in exchange for $2,000.
One woman had five children in her car when agents said she started acting nervous, and they smelled glue as if the car had been recently modified. They found 100 pounds of meth.
In another recent case, a man arrested for hiding 11 pounds of heroin in his car had his underage son in the passenger seat.
In all four cases, according to CBP, the drivers were U.S. citizens.
“I think we should all care about it because it focuses on our communities,” Silva said. “Now we are having travelers from our communities doing the smuggling, not someone from outside. So it hits closer to home, and that is concerning.”
Silva also said another area his agents are seeing a spike in drug busts are through cargo entries, like the one in Otay Mesa. That's because cargo traffic is considered essential and thus, was never restricted during the pandemic.
While Americans now make up a larger proportion of suspected drug smugglers, the amount of actual smuggling is consistent with levels seized before the pandemic.