SAN DIEGO — An 18-year-old man pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to recruiting classmates at Castle Park High School in Chula Vista to smuggle narcotics into the United States from Mexico.
Phillip Junior Webb of Tijuana admitted that he arranged for juvenile couriers to smuggle a total of 6.18 kilograms of methamphetamine and 1.2 kilograms of fentanyl across the international border on four occasions between July and October 2017.
In each instance, the juveniles had drugs strapped to their bodies as they attempted to enter the United States through customs facilities in Otay Mesa or San Ysidro, according to prosecutors.
Webb also admitted to trying to sneak two undocumented immigrants into the United States for financial gain.
Webb was arrested May 4 after being caught at San Ysidro Port of Entry with two foreigners — a Chinese citizen and a Mexican national — in the trunk of his car.
In light of his guilty pleas, Webb faces 13 years to life in prison and fines totaling $1.25 million. He is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 9.
During the 2016 fiscal year, law enforcement tracked a 153-percent spike in drug seizures involving minors — from 39 to 99 cases — in the U.S. Southern District of California, according to federal authorities.
“As law enforcers and as parents, we are tremendously concerned about our youth being exploited by drug cartels,” San Diego-area U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman said. “Juveniles need to know that consequences are real and dramatic.”
During a one-week span in March, five minors were arrested at the San Ysidro Port of Entry while trying to smuggle fentanyl into the country, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Many of the youthful perpetrators are recruited into the drug underworld at their high schools, government officials report.
In response to the trend, federal and state law enforcement agencies have begun a publicity campaign in a bid to dissuade minors from becoming so-called “drug mules” for cartels.
Newly installed billboards in San Diego and Imperial counties and Tijuana feature stark warnings that smuggling drugs could cost minors their futures.
Prosecutors and federal agents also are holding educational programs in South Bay high schools to impress upon students the extreme hazards of handling deadly drugs like fentanyl and working with ruthless violent criminals, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego.