2024 Election

Babyfaced Arizona Teens Suspected Of Working As People Smugglers For A Cartel In Worrying New Trend: Cops

A pair of babyfaced teenagers were caught allegedly smuggling immigrants over the US-Mexico border into into Arizona this weekend — as authorities warn Cartels are recruiting US citizens to do their human trafficking with promises of easy cash.

Eli LaClaire, 19, and Landon Vert, 18, were arrested Friday evening after police pulled them over and discovered five undocumented migrants stowed in their car, the Cochise County Sheriff’s office announced.

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Authorities think the pair could be the latest in the startling trend of violent cartels using social media to recruit young Americans, which they say has attracted people from all over the country.

Both teens were booked on human trafficking charges — a felony offense that could land them up to five years in prison.

“[LaClaire] obviously had people in his vehicle, and he had all the camouflage clothing and he had all the indicators and the evidence … not to prove, but to indicate he was in the smuggling business,” Cochise Country Sheriff’s office representative Carol Kapas told The Post, adding there was also evidence he’d been involved in previous smuggling operations before being caught.

Cochise County has seen a surge in young people being recruited by cartels to transport immigrants for up to $3,000 a head.

“We’ve had people come from all over the United States to do this. Even from Georgia, New York, Washington State, Virginia, Florida. We had somebody who came from California, flew into Phoenix, rented the biggest vehicle that he could find, came down here and got caught,” Kapas said.

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Hundreds of Americans — some as young 13-years-old — have been apprehended behind the wheels of cars loaded with immigrants since about October 2021 and later found to have been recruited by cartels, Kapas said.

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“They’re recruited through social [like] WhatsApp and TikTok,” she said. “It’s cartel members and cartel organizations that are targeting anybody, specifically, gearing towards teens wanting money, if they can make a quick buck.”

Cartels will take $10,000 lump sum payments from migrants, who then are given three chances to cross the border, Kapas explained.

If they eventually make it through without being apprehended, they meet drivers arranged by the cartels in the US who whisk them off to pre-determined locations.

The Cartels have been so successful in their recruitment that police have discovered people traveling from across the country to partake in smuggling operations and rake in huge paydays.

“We have arrested people, one male subject in particular, who made half a million dollars on smuggling before he was caught, according to him.”

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Officials believe Cartels targeted underage Americans to be their cross-border smugglers — known as “coyotes” — because they are too young to be fully prosecuted for their crimes in some border states.

“There would be no prosecution, so they can keep doing it over and over and over again,” Kapas said.

Just last month, Cochise County deputies apprehended a 15-year-old boy who did not have any immigrants with him, but appeared to be involved in a string of previous operations.

“Checking back through his records, they’d been stopped three other times for human smuggling,” Kapas said of the boy, noting those infractions had all been before 2023.

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To try to fight the problem, in March 2022 Arizona law enforcement launched a multi-agency task force to specifically crack down on people smuggling, Operation Safe Streets. One of the force’s first initiatives was successfully passing a state law which made human trafficking a state violation, allowing for easier prosecution of juveniles for the crimes and hopefully deterring others from partaking.

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Even with stronger legislative teeth behind them, police have been facing ongoing difficulties and dangers trying to apprehend smugglers. Cartels have told smugglers not to get got “at any cost,” Kapas said, which has lead to a spate of high speed car chases.

In one instance, a 17-year-old boy led police on a 100-mile car chase through residential streets, crossed a highway median and sped down into oncoming traffic, before cops executed a successful pit maneuver and finally wrecked the car.

“He just thought that was funny,” Kapas said. “He was a juvenile, nothing was going to happen to him.”

Both LaClaire and Vert have yet to be arraigned in front of a judge. The immigrants found in their car were sent to US Border Patrol to be assessed.

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Ella Ford is a mother of two, a Christian conservative writer with degrees in American History, Social and Behavioral Science and Liberal Studies, based in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area.


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