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Mexican cartels recruiting U.S. teens

(CNN) - Officials are warning Texans living near the Mexican border that several drug cartels are now recruiting high school students to do their dirty work.

At a recent house homeland security subcommittee hearing, Texas Republican Representative Michael McCaul called Mexican drug cartels a "threat to the nation."

"Violence in Mexico is spreading in ways that increasingly show characteristics of terrorism," McCaul said.

And now, the Texas Department of Public Safety is warning parents that the cartels are recruiting high school students on the U.S. side of the border.

Earlier this month, officials said a 12-year-old boy was caught in a border county driving a stolen pick-up truck containing more than 800 pounds of marijuana.

"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," Department of Public Safety Director Steven McGraw said.

Teens are sometimes offered as little as $50 to act as drivers for the cartels or the local crime gangs that support them. It's the same tactic the cartels have used in Mexico because they know the law is more lenient with minors.

In an effort to protect children, the U.S. Border Patrol is putting renewed emphasis on a campaign called "Operation Detour."

Its goal is to educate high school students about the perils associated with smuggling.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said the drug cartels are intimidating farmers and ranchers on the Texas side of the border, some of whom have been assaulted and chased off their own property.

Testifying before congress last week, former U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffery said U.S. officials can no longer ignore the influence of Mexican criminal organizations all over the United States.

He said the organizations were operating in 260 cities, all the way to Portland, OR, where he talked to their police department.

"They've moving hundreds of metric tons of cocaine, heroine, methamphetamines, ecstasy, high THC-content marijuana across that border," McCaffery said.

For now, there's no shortage of customer demand.

Copyright 2011 CNN. All rights reserved.

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