Drug traffickers are recruiting smugglers on Facebook

You can do just about anything on Facebook, including hiring drug mules.
You can do just about anything on Facebook, including hiring drug mules.
Image: REUTERS/Jon Nazca
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Two American citizens who were recently caught smuggling large quantities of illegal narcotics from Mexico into the United States said they had been recruited through job ads posted on Facebook.

One, a 33-year-old woman arrested at a California border crossing last month with 37 kilos of cocaine in her car, said she was recruited through a Facebook ad that promised “an opportunity to make money.” The other, a California man found with 67 kilos of meth and 5.6 kilos of cocaine when he attempted to drive across the border in April, also said he had answered an ad on Facebook which was soliciting “people looking for work.”

It’s not clear what exactly the postings contained, and whether they were paid ads or regular posts. However, the cases show that such transactions often don’t happen on the dark web or a crime-ridden street corner, but on the social network millions of people use every day. Facebook is unique in that it gives individual users instant access to nearly anyone, is easy to use, and is difficult to monitor.

The cases, which were discovered among dozens of federal search warrant applications obtained by Quartz, demonstrate how difficult it is for the social networking giant to police illicit activity, and how easy it is for bad actors to co-opt the platform for their own nefarious purposes.

“An opportunity to make money”

It was shortly before 10:30am on June 18 when Priscilla Gonzalez approached the San Ysidro Port of Entry in her own 2016 Honda Civic.

As she waited in line to cross into the States, a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drug-detection dog “alerted to the rear passenger door of the vehicle,” explains an affidavit filed by federal investigators.

Gonzalez was sent to secondary screening, where her car was X-rayed. CBP officers found 32 packages of cocaine in the vehicle—18 inside the doors and 14 inside the back seat—weighing a total of 36.9 kg (81.3 lbs).

After she was placed under arrest, Gonzalez, whose lawyer said in court her client had moved from Southern California to Rosarito, Mexico with her husband and two kids for financial reasons, was questioned by agents from the Department of Homeland Security. Gonzalez told them she responded to a Facebook ad promising a way to earn cash. She said she was instructed to drop off her car at an auto repair shop in Mexico, then drive it into the United States.

Gonzalez claimed someone was supposed to contact her on Facebook Messenger and direct her to a drop-off spot after she crossed the border. She said was expecting payment of $3,000 for the round trip.

“Candy and wallets”

Two months earlier, officers at the same US border crossing encountered a nearly identical situation.

When Saul Leal pulled up to the San Ysidro Port of Entry in a green Nissan Xterra on April 16, he told officers he was headed to work in Otay Mesa, an area of San Diego that abuts the Mexican border.

Like Gonzalez, a CBP K9 alerted officials to something suspicious in Leal’s car as he sat in line. He was referred to secondary inspection, where the vehicle was X-rayed. Officers “observed anomalies in the spare tire, front seats, and both quarter panels,” according to an affidavit filed in federal court. A vehicle search turned up 55 vacuum-sealed packages of methamphetamine, weighing a total of 30.5 kg (67.2 lbs), and five vacuum-sealed packages of cocaine, weighing a combined 5.6 kg (12.3 lbs).

“Leal stated that he was looking for a job in the San Diego area on Facebook,” according to a sworn statement filed in federal court by the DHS agent who questioned him. “Leal contacted someone on Facebook who was looking for workers to transport candy and wallets from Mexico to the United States.”

Leal said he then met up with someone named “Tomas,” who introduced Leal to a man he called “Supervisor.” In exchange for regularly bringing the seemingly benign items into the US, Leal was promised a car, a cell phone, and $35 per trip. He said he had been given the Xterra a couple of weeks earlier, court filings explain.

Although Leal was “initially reluctant to give details about Tomas and Supervisor,” he eventually said he “suspected them of being involved in narcotics smuggling.” Leal confessed that Tomas upped the ante from $35 per trip to $5,000, if Leal agreed to smuggle money or people across the border into the US. But Leal insisted that he refused the offer.

Leal, who said he had crossed the border about four times before being caught, explained that he tried to register the SUV under his own name to make things less conspicuous, but it failed a smog inspection. Tomas claimed to have fixed it, and rode with Leal all the way to the San Ysidro crossing the day he was busted.

“Before getting out of the car Tomas told Leal that next time he will not be with him, however there will be a GPS tracker in the car until Tomas and the Supervisor can trust him,” according to court records. “Leal told agents he suspected that the car was loaded with something illegal and even gave his credit card to his wife in case he was arrested.”

A platform for all—including drug cartels

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, and the company’s other properties, Messenger, Whatsapp and Instagram, provide a platform for planning and executing criminal schemes of various types—and have long been used by drug traffickers.

In 2016, a Southern California drug trafficker was caught using Facebook to coordinate the transport of “vast quantities” of methamphetamine into the United States. Mexico’s notorious Jalisco drug cartel has reportedly groomed hit men by posting fake job ads on Facebook, forcing those who applied to attend military-style training camps against their will. Cartels also use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for extortion, while human smugglers use Facebook to coordinate their activities and advertise their services.

Drug dealers, meanwhile, have repeatedly used Facebook and Instagram to promote and sell their products. (Facebook is also frequently used as a modern-day newspaper jobs section, which has also landed the company in trouble, when advertisers were using its algorithms to discriminate against job candidates based on age.)

In the past, Facebook has made the argument that it is not liable for content on its website under US law. But, the platform prohibits content that promotes or attempts to coordinate criminal activity, a company spokesperson told Quartz. Ads must also adhere to those rules, and are specifically not allowed to promote illegal activities. Ads are monitored just like regular content, the spokesperson said.

Facebook also cooperates with law enforcement, responding to subpoenas and warrants. Last year, the company also stepped up its efforts to limit drug sales, especially opioids, including developing AI that detects potential drug sales on the platform.

Despite all this, there are still plenty of things that manage to slip by.

Gonzalez is currently free on $30,000 bond, and was ordered to surrender her passport. Reached by email, Gonzalez’s attorney declined to comment on the case. She is due back in court on Aug. 19.

Leal also pleaded not guilty and is free on $30,000 bond, as well. His attorney, Robert Rexrode, did not respond to a request for comment. Leal’s next court date is scheduled for Sept. 9.