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Criminal Justice

How an Instagram Ad, a $1,000 Side Hustle and a SoCal Road Trip Led 2 SF Teens Into the Hands of Border Patrol

Written by Jonah Owen LambPublished Jun. 30, 2022 • 3:54pm
Illustration by Lu Chen

English

Kirsten Khyzoma held a number of jobs throughout her teen years: grocery bagger, babysitter and seasonal worker at a Halloween store. The Instagram ad offered what seemed like just another odd job.

All the 19-year-old and her friend Samantha Condes had to do, according to the job posting on a skateboarder influencer’s Instagram account, was to drive a few laborers across county lines. 

The San Francisco teens happened to be in Southern California for a road trip, so the detour east of San Diego that promised them $500 a piece looked like an easy way to make a quick buck, they later recounted, according to court records.

As it turned out, there was nothing quick or easy about it. 

By taking the job, the duo—who became friends while attending John O’Connell Technical High School on Folsom Street—unwittingly became part of a smuggling scheme that got them to illegally transport three undocumented immigrants across the southern border from Mexico to the U.S., according to court records. 

The underground network that ensnared Khyzoma and Condes—who were both recently sentenced in the U.S. District Court—is part of what officials describe as a growing and widely reported trend.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) say smugglers have increasingly relied on social media to recruit teens and young adults from Texas and California. In 2020 alone, the Border Patrol office covering an area near Laredo, Texas, reported 90 teen drivers arrested in similar schemes. 

Though his office has no hard numbers on such cases, Eric Lavergne, a spokesperson for the CBP’s San Diego Sector, said they’re becoming a regular occurrence. 

“It’s very common,” he said.

In some cases, a single high school will net a group of teens recruited by peers. The promise of fast money is hard for many to turn down, Lavergne said. 

The nature of social media and the ubiquity of recruiters, he added, make it very difficult to stop teens from taking these chances.

“All of the smugglers recruit out of the high schools close to the border or throughout Southern California,” Lavergne added. 

Or, in the case of Khyzoma and Condes, as far north as San Francisco.

Recruitment, Pick Up and Arrest

Khyzoma found the gig through a skater influencer feed on Instagram that posted an advertisement for drivers. When she sent a direct message for more details, someone replied by explaining that the job involved driving workers from one location to another. 

The pay: $1,000. Khyzoma and Condes figured they’d use their earnings to cover gas and a hotel on a trip they’d already planned to Los Angeles. 

The ad poster told Khyzoma she needed to talk to their boss through Instagram. When the day came on Oct. 22 of last year, Khyzoma was given coordinates where she and Condes were supposed to pick up the workers, which took them about 5 miles north of the Mexican border. 

As Condes drove, the boss checked in repeatedly about their location and told them to move faster. The boss also requested that they share their location, which they did. 

When they arrived at the specified location, three men jumped into their SUV, which frightened the women, they later told investigators. 

“They were afraid to say anything that could compromise their safety,” according to court documents.

At this point—Khyzoma recounted according to court records—she realized her car was full of undocumented immigrants, which is not what she later told inquisitive border patrol agents. Then, the boss messaged her an address in Orange County and told them to hit the road again.

It was just past 9 a.m., court records say, and their pit stop near a vista was not far from a trio of border patrol agents scanning the foothills east of San Diego near Lake Otay. 

The border agents said they noticed a Hyundai stopping from time to time as it headed east. The agents said they also noticed that both of the women inside kept looking at their phones. They decided to follow the SUV. 

After trailing the Hyundai to somewhere around Oceanside, the agents flashed their lights and pulled over the two women and their passengers, who were covered in brush. 

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All the passengers were Mexican citizens and said they paid an unknown source $10,000 to smuggle them into the United States, according to court documents. They told the border patrol agents they had simply hailed a ride from the women and that the pair weren’t part of the smuggling plan. 

But officials say Condes and Khyzoma offered conflicting narratives. 

Condes told the agents that she not only knew the three men were illegally in the United States, but that she and her friend had been paid to pick them up. She even told the agents how they’d been recruited for the job on Instagram. 

Khyzoma, for her part, told the agents that the pair had stopped to enjoy the view over Otay Lake when they stumbled upon a handful of distressed-looking migrants in the bushes. She said she told them to hop in the car and that she had no idea they’d crossed the border illegally.

Both women were arrested, charged with felonies and released on bail, records show. 

The three men later cooperated with the government as material witnesses. 

Unwitting Pawns?  

Khyzoma’s attorney declined to talk to The Standard about the case. Condes’ lawyer didn’t return a call for comment. 

But in a sentencing memo in federal court, Stephanie Grimaldi—Khyzoma’s attorney—said her client was remorseful about what happened and played just a small role in the crime.

The filing described Khyzoma as a good student who—with no idea about the scope of the trafficking plot—became a pawn in a broader criminal enterprise. 

In January, Condes pleaded guilty to the charges of bringing in and “harboring an alien.” On April 14, she was fined $100, given time served and ordered to work 200 hour of community service, according to court documents. The $5,000 fine was waived, and she will remain on probation for three years. 

Khyzoma, who was charged on the same counts, received the same sentence and conditions—none of which bar them from social media. 

English

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]


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