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PALMVIEW — The 15-year-old who police say was behind the wheel of last week’s major fatal accident along U.S. Expressway 83 that killed several people is a prime example of local youth being drafted to join a life of crime, authorities said.

On April 10, Palmview police say U.S. Border Patrol agents initiated a traffic stop on a van that was suspected of transporting illegal immigrants. When the van stopped, one passenger bolted from the vehicle, leaving the door open as the driver sped off evading authorities. As law enforcement followed the can, the driver lost control of the vehicle and hit a cement barricade. All of the van’s occupants were ejected from the van.

“Bodies were all over the expressway,” said Palmview Police Chief Chris Barrera.

Nine people died and seven others were sent to a local hospital with injuries.

Barrera said six men involved in the smuggling ring have been charged in federal court. These arrests led authorities to the driver, he added.

On Tuesday, the 15-year-old boy, who is a U.S. citizen and student at the La Joya Independent School District and lives near Alton, was charged in juvenile court with nine counts of murder, 17 counts of human smuggling causing injury or death and one count of evading arrest. Because he’s a juvenile, police said they could not release his name.

Hidalgo County District Attorney officials are still working on deciding whether to try the teen as an adult based on the severity of the crimes.

“You could tell…he wanted to come clean,” Barrera said of the teen’s interview with police where he confessed to driving the van.

The teenager said his family was threatened with death if he didn’t assist in smuggling the immigrants, but Barrera said the police investigation doesn’t indicate the teen had been threatened.

The 15-year-old may have been targeted because of his age. Authorities this week said they’ve heard of youth being recruited to join smuggling rings and even drug cartels, but this is the first time Palmview police have encountered the situation.

The teenager has a criminal record, but Barrera couldn’t elaborate on any of his previous charges.

The trend of teenagers being used for criminal activity is nothing new in Texas. Recently, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven C. McCraw said the state has encountered a number of young criminals engaging in drug and human smuggling.

In one border county, about 25 juveniles had been charged with drug smuggling crimes. And last fall, DPS troopers arrested a 12-year-old boy who was found smuggling drugs along the Rio Grande.

“Mexican cartels have corrupted nearly an entire generation of youth living in Northern Mexico and they seek to corrupt our youth as well to further their smuggling operations,” McCraw said last year. “The Mexican cartels value Texas teenagers for their ability to serve as expendable labor in many different roles and they have unlimited resources to recruit our children.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection have developed Operation Detour, an educational campaign warning high school students of the consequences of getting involved with human and narcotic smuggling and the narco-terrorism underworld. Over the last few years, agents have spoken to over 100,000 teenagers through Operation Detour, said Agent Rosie Huey.

Their campaign takes them to border schools, showing video of teenagers who’ve been killed as a result of their involvement in criminal activity. Clips of the video uploaded to the Texas Tribune Website show images of charred bodies and shooting victims piled on top of one another in the bed of a truck. Authorities said teenagers are so desensitized to violence that their campaign has to aggressive in its message.

LJISD has brought the Border Patrol campaign into its schools and LJISD Police Chief Raul Gonzalez said his department has made every effort to ensure that some form of law enforcement has gone into every school at every level to stress the importance of an education over crime.

“Only two things can happen,” Gonzalez said, “they’ll go to jail or be killed.”

Gonzalez advocates that parents monitor their children’s spending habits and know the people their children are associating with.

“If the family doesn’t have a lot of money and they come home with brand name clothing, it’s obvious that something is going on and that needs to be addressed,” he said. “If they say a friend loan it to them or gave it to them, it isn’t true. Nothing is for free in this world.”

Administrators are blunt with students about the consequences of getting involved in drug and human smuggling rings. Gonzalez admitted it’s a difficult message to present to students.

“Unfortunately, it’s easy money,” he said. “Money is the root of all evil and we’re always concerned about that. But we tell these kids, this was one of your friends, you rode the bus with him and now look at him. Don’t do this.”

Educators and parents have to get tough when steering a child away from criminal activity, he said. Using the 15-year-old LJISD student is the best example.

“We always tell people to learn from someone else’s mistakes,” Gonzalez said. “Hopefully they’ll get it, it could be them, and we’ll always hope they’ll make the right decision.”

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