After they found two stowaways in a car trying to cross the border from Mexico, U.S. border inspectors thought something wasn't quite right with a pinata in the back seat.
It seemed unusually heavy, and they got a surprise when they broke it open. Hidden inside was a young girl.
"We took the bottom off the pinata and there were her little legs dangling," said Vince Bond, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego.
The 4- or 5-year-old girl was unhurt and could breathe "just fine" inside the papier-mache pinata, Bond said. Completely sealed inside, she had remained calm and quiet.
The girl's brother, about 9, had been discovered under a fold-down seat, and their mother was in the trunk of the car as it made its way through the Tecate Port of Entry, 35 miles southeast of San Diego, on Nov 2.
U.S. border inspectors have seen all sorts of ruses to smuggle immigrants from Mexico. But this one was both imaginative and dangerous, Bond said.
Border officials have found people hidden in washing machines, behind a dashboard and in a false gas tank. About two weeks ago, at the Tecate crossing, agents searched a truck carrying carpet rolls. "Each roll had a person inside," Bond said.
On another occasion, border inspectors discovered a man sitting stock-still in a minivan seat, hands outstretched on the armrests, and a baby seat perched on his lap. "He was pretending to be a car seat," Bond said. "He was covered in Naugahyde."
"This activity of smuggling kids across the border can be very dangerous for the kids," said Bond, noting that sealing a child inside any kind of receptacle can turn tragic.
In the Nov. 2 incident, the female driver and a male adult passenger, both U.S. citizens, will not be prosecuted because of the high volume of immigrant smuggling cases and because officers in the field concluded that the lives of the three people found hidden in the car were not in immediate danger, said Adele Fasano, Southern California field operations director for Customs. The stowaways were voluntarily deported to Mexico.
However, Fasano said, the incident underscores the need to prosecute cases more aggressively, especially when children are involved.
"There's an alarming trend of an increased prevalence of this type of smuggling, of hiding people in vehicles," Fasano said. Though she did not have numbers, "we're on a pace of far surpassing last fiscal year," she said.
As the 1990 Acura sedan with California license plates pulled up to the Tecate checkpoint Nov. 2, a suspicious agent directed the driver to pull over for a closer look inside.
It's not clear what attracted the extra scrutiny.
"If you do this kind of work, over time you build up a sixth sense of things that don't look right, either with the car or the people," Bond said. "They're nervous. The jugular vein is pumping. Their hands are wrapped around the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip."
The smugglers were not related to the three stowaways, Fasano said. "They were doing it for money."