Grand Theft Auto players know what it’s like working for a Mexican cartel. But they do so from the comfort of their own bedroom.
What many don’t realize is that real-life cartel recruiters are playing the game and recruiting players for real-life work. Last year, Mexican police revealed youngsters were being recruited by drug cartels over popular video games, including Grand Theft Auto Online, though there was little in the way of evidence.
According to a case unearthed by Forbes, it appears the U.S. has gathered evidence that GTA Online really is a recruitment tool for Mexico’s narcotics cartels.
In November last year, Customs and Border Protection officials in Arizona were inspecting a Jeep Cherokee when they found nearly 60kg of methamphetamine, the government said. When they asked the driver, Alyssa Navarro, what her story was, she said that in January that year she had been playing Grand Theft Auto Online when she met a man who called himself “George,” according to a search warrant unsealed late last week. After getting to know each other within the game, Navarro said they eventually started talking on Snapchat and later met in person in Phoenix, investigators claimed.
The suspect said that George asked her over Snapchat whether she’d like some work as a “runner,” shipping electronics so they could be sold in Mexico, telling her she could be paid as much as $2,000 a trip depending on how big the load was, according to the government filing.
Federal investigators obtained Snapchat messages from Navarro’s phone in which George promises “a lot of money” and offered the use of a truck, believed to be the same Jeep in which she was apprehended.
Sometimes, drug cartels try to hide narcotics in electronics equipment when shifting them across the border. But, per Navarro’s narrative, as described in a criminal complaint against her, she was told to meet a contact in Mexico called Alfredo, who gave her the Jeep and said she should fill up the tank at certain gas stations along the way and take the vehicle to another unidentified individual. The methamphetamine was not hidden in electronics but in the fuel tank, CBP officers found. According to the complaint, when investigators asked if she didn’t think the job offer was odd, or too good to be true, she agreed it did seem strange, and when she was on the bus to Mexico, even asked herself, “What am I doing?” but still went ahead and met her mysterious contact.
Whatever the government thinks happened in Navarro’s case is unclear, but she has been charged with conspiracy to import and sell methamphetamine, as well as possession. Earlier this month, she pleaded not guilty. The Department of Justice had not responded to a request for comment.
Last October, Mexican law enforcement in Oaxaca said three minors had been recruited over popular mobile battle royal game Free Fire. The kids had been offered around $200 a week as cartel lookouts, according to media reports. At the time, it was also reported individuals claiming to belong to various narcotics crews, including the Sinaloa Cartel, were reaching out to children late at night on games including the online multiplayer version of Grand Theft Auto V.
Computer games have proven increasingly popular for other kinds of grooming. The explosion in the popularity of online gaming has led to platforms like Minecraft, XBox Live, or games like GTA Online and Fortnite becoming spots where many children spend time with existing friends and make new ones. The anonymity of an online gaming handle has, however, attracted predators, and the Justice Department has prosecuted multiple men who tried to hide behind online personas to coerce minors.