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A U.S. Office of Air and Marine agent stands over a drug smuggler on the bank of the Rio Grande River at the U.S.-Mexico Border on April 11, 2013 in Mission, Texas. Agents with helicopter support from the U.S. Office of Air and Marine broke up a marijuana smuggling operation from Mexico into Texas.
The unlikely story of a middle-class Mormon mom of seven being held in Mexico on what may be trumped-up drug-trafficking charges has grabbed headlines this week, sparking interest in the shadowy world of drug mules.
As Yanira Maldonado's family waits anxiously to learn her fate, thousands of other people are smuggling narcotics over the borders and across the U.S., risking life and liberty for a payday.
Couriers are the lowest rung on a drug operation's ladder but indispensable to the kingpins and middlemen who need them to get their illegal product onto the streets — whether by backpack over the Rio Grande, by car driven through a checkpoint, or in luggage checked onto a plane.
Experts say only a small percentage are caught and the money — a pittance to a Wall Street banker but a small fortune to an out-of-work Mexican or a meth addict on a downward spiral — is too easy for many to pass up.
"The first time, you're terrified. You almost sleepwalk through it," said Chris Heifner, who wrote a memoir called "Mule" about a six-month stint as a Texas-based courier. "Then it becomes routine to the point where you just laugh at it."
Both Mexicans and Americans drawn to mule work
Government officials say the majority of drug mules are Mexican, but experts say there are plenty of U.S. citizens involved, too.
Caleb Mason, a former federal prosecutor and law professor who consults on drug-smuggling cases, said an analysis of nearly 4,000 federal busts at Southern California crossings from 2007 to 2010 showed 45 percent of the suspects were Americans, and the rest Mexican.
A study by the Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this year found three out of four people caught with drugs by Border Patrol were U.S. citizens, though the agency said that number was skewed because some of the drugs were for personal use and did not represent trafficking.
Erin Siegal / Redux
A car with bricks of marijuana concealed in its bumper is seized by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents work along the U.S.- Mexico border crossing joining Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, to San Diego, California.
While many drugs are driven in, some marijuana is brought in by "backpackers" — usually Mexicans or Central and South Americans — who hike for hours or even days with loads that weigh up to 50 pounds until they sneak across the border, said Ronald Colburn, former national deputy chief of the Border Patrol.
Mostly men's work, but one in four mules is female
The field tends to be dominated by men, even though women may be less likely to get profiled. Mason's number-crunching revealed that about one in four people caught smuggling was female. Of course, that doesn't account for the people who aren't nabbed.
The common denominator among all mules is economic need. "This is a form of casual labor just like construction or field work, but it pays 100 times better," Mason said.
Some couriers are also users, said Robert Mazur, a former federal agent who wrote "The Infiltrator" about infiltrating a Colombian cartel.
"Your typical profile of a mule from the central Florida area, which is a highly active methamphetamine and marijuana region, is the relatively uneducated white male or female, economically challenged, living in a trailer in a rural area," Mazur said.
For those making border runs, a key requirement is no criminal record, so they won't be subjected to closer inspection, Mason said.
Drug-smuggling help not hard to find
Recruiting mules is often an informal word-of-mouth affair, experts said.
"There will be people who know you cross a lot and generally someone will say, 'You want to make a little extra money?'" Mason said.
Americans who cross into Mexico to buy drugs will sometimes be asked if they want to take a load back, Mason said.
Some Mexicans are offered a discount by human smugglers to carry drugs as they cross the border, said Colburn, who is now with the Command Consulting Group. Others, he said, have uncles and brothers who were mules.
Coletta Youngers of the Washington Office on Latin America human rights group said women can be coerced or tricked by boyfriends or husband involved with drugs.
In Heifner's case, he said, he and his pregnant girlfriend were about to be evicted in December 1999 when he borrowed money from an old friend who was running drugs and convinced him to take 100 pounds of marijuana from Texas to Kansas.
"Once someone like him gets his hooks into you, he won't give up," said Heifner, 40, who claims he became a drug informant after his first bust.
The pay is good but maybe not as much you might think
Heifner said he made $8,000 for his run, but many mules make far less.
Mason found the average pay for a southwest border-crossing was $1,600 for a package that was generally worth more than $100,000 — though the fee went up for loads that could expose the courier to a stiffer sentence if they were caught.
The going rate for driving a car with a secret compartment filled with 50 pounds of meth from Texas to Florida is about $5,000 to $7,000, Mazur said.
"I know people who have made four to five trips a year," said Mazur, who is president of the investigative firm Chase & Associates. "For some folks, seven grand five times a year for driving a car is not bad money."
Mexican backpackers get much less— as little as $100 for risky runs across rough terrain, which could involve hiding in caves by day and moving only at night.
How risky is it?
It's unclear what proportion of mules are caught.
The recruiters will often do dry runs with new couriers to make sure they don't look terrified and sweaty when they're questioned at a checkpoint, Mason said.
The stash spots can be incredibly difficult to detect. Entire gas tanks can be removed and replaced with a bundle of drugs, or a back bumper can be filled with packages. Customs and Border Protection regularly announces seizures of narcotics hidden in creative receptacles like statues of Jesus, shoe heels or hair-spray cans. Mules have been known to swallow balloons or condoms filled with heroin.
Mason estimated that less than 10 percent — possibly just 5 percent — get busted. The median sentence for the California cases he studied was 18 months, because many were first offenses, he said.
"I interviewed a guy once who had giant truck tires on the back of a pickup stuffed with coke and he had done 15 trips. Never got caught," Mason said.
Mules caught on the other side of the border face a harsher fate, said Youngers. Her group spotlighted a woman who was tricked into bringing a bag of drugs into an airport, forced to confess and then sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Yet for many women, it's a chance they feel they have no choice but to take.
"You talk to these women and they say, 'Look, I felt like I had two choices — prostitution and getting involved in the drug business, and this was better,'" she said.