How would you try to smuggle more than 700 pounds of coke into the United States?
Some try to hide the drugs inside cars. Others have concealed them in shipments of pumpkins and squash.
For a group of alleged smugglers in Puerto Rico, the solution was to ship pieces of cabinetry lined with bags of cocaine inside, while multiple shipments were going back and forth to the continental U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
Unfortunately, that tactic didn't withstand the vigilant eye of U.S. customs authorities, who found a shipping container from the then storm-ravaged island filled with bedroom and kitchen cabinets that had "false walls," concealing hundreds of bricks of uncut coke. The street value of the drugs is estimated to be around $22 million.
“Customs and Border Protection knows that transnational drug trafficking organizations will take advantage of natural disasters, and in this case an island struggling to recover from a crippling hurricane, to smuggle dangerous drugs to our nation’s mainland,” Joseph Martella, acting US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) director of the Port of Philadelphia, said in an announcement of the bust. “CBP officers remain ever vigilant to interdict narcotics loads, and we are pleased to have stopped this deadly poison shipment before it could hurt our communities.”
Customs officials first publicly announced the bust on Jan. 8, but the coke was originally discovered on Nov. 2 when an "anomaly" was detected at the Pennsauken, N.J. seaport. The container was then sent to the Centralized Examination Station in Philadelphia for examination.
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"Officers emptied the contents of the container, and after thorough inspection, discovered false walls in numerous pieces of furniture bedroom and kitchen cabinets. The false compartments concealed 256 bricks of a white powdery substance that field tested positive for cocaine," Customs said in a press release. The discovery of those drugs led to an investigation in Newark and Cherry Hill by Immigrations & Customs Enforcement which remains pending.
Just weeks later, on Nov. 28, a wooden chest bound for Cinnaminson, NJ from Puerto Rico was found to contain another 30 pounds of coke, or 13.56 kilos, with an estimated street value of $900,000.
CBP’s mid-Atlantic Field Operations Director Casey Owen Durst praised his agents' use of "imaging technology to detect and intercept an immense amount of cocaine cleverly concealed in a shipment of furniture" in these busts.
“Narcotics interdiction remains an enforcement priority for Customs and Border Protection, and a mission that we take very serious," Durst said.
Philadelphia's last largest seizure was 864 pounds of cocaine concealed in a shipping container from the Dominican Republic, seized March 8, 2007.
It's the second biggest bust of a shipment from Puerto Rico, after 386 pounds of cocaine were found hidden in the body of a pick-up truck in July 2012.
In September 2017, CBP seized 363 pounds of cocaine hidden inside boxes of pumpkin and squash from Costa Rica.
Customs says it typically picks up about 7,910 pounds of illicit drugs a day on the U.S.' borders.
Coke Seizure By The Numbers
kilos of coke found in November shipments from Puerto Rico
pounds of coke
estimated street value