08/17/2022 (written by ateague) – The term “Blind Mule” refers to an individual who unknowingly engages in smuggling drugs across the border. (Busted at the Border, 2018) The initial use of this defense by those stopped at the border arose around 2011, however the frequency has increased in recent years as drug trafficking organizations adapt to state escalation. (Pangas, Trickery, Intimidation and Drug Trafficking, 2016) This report aims to briefly identify aspects of the blind mule scenario as well as how and why this has been adopted by drug trafficking organizations.
It has been reported that DTO’s utilize blind mules for smuggling ultimately due to the cheaper nature of not having to pay the individual. According to Dr. Victor Clark, blind mules are in effect a form of cheap, disposable labor. However, blind mules, being both inexperienced as well as strangers to the organizations, do present a greater risk. For this reason, it is common for DTO’s to only entrust these individuals with a smaller amount of drugs, usually marijuana, than say a seasoned smuggler. (People v. Romo, 2016)
With this increased risk, it is important for DTO’s to choose the blind mule wisely. Those most vulnerable to becoming targets are identified as having predictable schedules and crossing patterns. (People v Romo, 2016) Many times these people live across the border in Mexico and cross daily into the United States for work. (Telemundo, 2021) In 2011-2012 there were several cases being investigated by ICE where DTO’s were attaching drugs to cars that had SENTRI passes on them. (CBS8, 2012) Having the knowledge that SENTRI holders face less scrutiny at the border, these individuals became easy targets. Other ways that DTO’s attempt to take advantage of unknowing persons has been through the posting of job ads in newspapers or, more recently, on Facebook. (PrensaLibre, 2021) Over time state and federal officials have released several warnings to the general public, specifically those who fit the above categories, about these practices with the hopes that individuals will be more attentive to their personal vehicles before crossing. (KJZZ, 2012)
There are several ways in which DTO’s manage to place drugs in the cars of blind mules. A common and easy process includes attaching magnets to the packages and placing them underneath the unsuspecting vehicle or even replacing a spare tire with one filled with drugs. (Pangas, Trickery, Intimidation and Drug Trafficking, 2016) In other cases they may attach a GPS tracking device to the vehicle in order to track the car as it crosses. This allows the DTO’s to locate the drugs when it is time to remove them from the vehicle. (People v Romo, 2016) In fact, one of the factors used to determine whether or not an individual is truly a blind mule is the location of the drugs on the vehicle. If the drugs are hidden in a location that would require physical manipulation of the personal vehicle, it is less likely that the owner is unaware of the presence of the drugs. (People v Romo, 2016) This argument could be countered however if the owner entrusted the vehicle to a mechanic that was unknowingly connected with a DTO or smuggling organization. In order to help identify whether or not a case involves a blind mule, a checklist provided by Arizona Public Defender Goncalves has been added to the end of this brief. (Busted at the Border, 2018)
There are some cases in which individuals who have been charged with drug smuggling were able to have their charges dropped on the basis that they were blind mules. One of the most notable has been titled the “Salvation Army Delivery” case where a man was blindly smuggling drugs after responding to a delivery ad in a newspaper. (San Diego Union Tribune, 2015) Nonetheless, as more people claim to be a blind mule, the level of distrust among federal prosecutors has increased, placing pressure on the defense to support said claim. (Noticiasya, 2022)
It is difficult to assess to what degree the use of blind mules by DTO’s may be increasing to date. This is in part due to the fact that CBP seizures do not include any such breakdown of categories. (Univision, 2018) Looking at news reports and court cases, the use of blind mules dates back largely to 2011 but has continued to change and adapt over the years. For example, it has been more recently reported that DTO’s are not only utilizing blind mules to smuggle drugs, but also migrants across the border. (El Imparcial, 2022) Many public officials have come to acknowledge the credibility of the blind mule defense, and in return have warned the public. According to Fleetwood, the utilization of blind mules is reflective of tactical adaptation, “the adaptation of drug trafficking networks to increased law enforcement and border controls.” (Pangas, Trickery, Intimidation and Drug Trafficking, 2016) As new methods to counter drug smuggling are established, it is expected that DTO’s will find a way to undermine them.
Aside from landmines and IEDs, cartels have been utilizing pillboxes, trenches and armored cars as ways to fight for control of Michoacán. However, the development of landmines and drones has proven to be more effective since they tend to have more of a surprise element. Mexican law enforcement stated the use of landmines was inspired from groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. More specifically, according to Robert Almonte, a Texas-based security consultant, the CJNG is the first to use drones that have explosives, with the explosives being metal pipes filled with gunpowder that are attached to a battery and a detonator. The Viagras cartel and its members in United Cartels and the CJNG continue to use landmines and drones to threaten each other.
Even though there are many concrete cases to point to, the number of people targeted and used as blind mules is minuscule compared to the total flows of traffic at U.S. land bound ports of entry. The vast majority of cross-border traffic consists of legal, legitimate flows of people and goods, which create the enormous hay stack that traffickers and smugglers exploit to move contraband both in (drugs and people) and out (guns and cash) of the United States. Thus, statistically speaking, local border residents, tourists and others traveling to Mexico for short periods of time are extremely unlikely to be targeted as blind mules. Persons who are concerned that they may be targeted in this way are encouraged to review recent advisories and recommendations from the U.S. State Department about travel to Mexico.
A Checklist for Evaluating a Blind Mule Case
In evaluating a blind mule case, the defense lawyer should consider the following factors:
1. Who owns the vehicle?
2. Did the driver buy the vehicle from an auction, leading to the possibility that the drugs were present at the time of purchase (i.e., failed law enforcement drug inspections)?
3. Where is the vehicle going?
4. What is the purpose of the trip?
5. Are there prior entries for this vehicle?
6. Are there prior entries for the client? How many? When did the client cross?
7. In which vehicle(s) did the client cross? Was anyone else in the car?
8. Did law enforcement look for a GPS tracker on the vehicle?
9. Was the client nervous? What can explain this?
10. Was there a plausible opportunity for members of the drug trafficking organization to have control of the vehicle prior to the defendant driving it so that they could set the compartment and load the vehicle?
11. Was there a plausible opportunity for members of the drug trafficking organization to take custody of that vehicle on the U.S. side so they could unload it?
12. Was there a plausible way for the drug trafficking organization to monitor the vehicle, whether by having a trailing car follow it or by putting a $100 GPS tracker in it?
13. Given the location inside the vehicle where the drugs were, was it plausible that a person could get into this vehicle, drive it, and not be aware of those compartments or the drugs?
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