Couriers get creative in drug-smuggling attempts

The Washington Examiner

By Emily Babay

These weren’t clams you’d want to serve on the dinner table. The juice boxes weren’t what you’d put in your child’s lunch box. The soup wasn’t what you’d use to nurse yourself back to health. And the statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph definitely weren’t fit for a church.

They’re all methods used by drug smugglers trying to get their contraband into the United States through Washington-area airports, sending couriers on flights with cocaine-stuffed clams, soup packets and statues, or with stomachs full of ingested heroin pellets.

“These are some really weird and unique concealment methods,” Customs and Border Protection spokesman Steve Sapp said. “They’re trying different things, and we’re trying to uncover them.”

David Pocasangre Vaquiz, a Salvadoran who authorities say was caught at Washington Dulles International Airport last week with 15 cocaine-filled clams in his luggage, is only the most recent courier nabbed with drugs at a D.C.-area airport.

In fiscal 2010, Sapp said, CBP officers seized more than 55 pounds of cocaine, 15 pounds of heroin and 21 pounds of marijuana at Dulles.

Smuggling through couriers who land at Dulles is a growing concern because of the number of direct flights from high-trafficking areas like Africa and Latin America, said John Torres, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Washington office.

“There are more desirable routes for drug smugglers to come to D.C.,” he said.

Agents employ X-rays, drug-sniffing dogs and behavior detection specialists to pinpoint smugglers, Torres said. U.S. officials also work with foreign law enforcement agencies to learn what drug cartels are doing, he said.

But some smuggling methods just can’t be predicted. When an unusual attempt is thwarted, CBP will alert agents at other ports, Sapp said.

He said such attempts around the D.C. region have included the clams, a man nabbed at Dulles who concealed cocaine in religious statues, and a woman who arrived at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport with cocaine stuffed inside her bra.

Other smugglers have swallowed dozens of heroin pellets, packed cocaine into juice boxes or soup packets, stuffed a chicken with cocaine, hid heroin in suitcases and taped marijuana to magazines.

In other cases, drugs have been found on cruise ships and airplane cabin panels and cargo holds but the smuggler was never caught.

How much the arrests hurt the overall trafficking operations, though, is up for debate.

Stopping a courier doesn’t do much harm to a drug cartel, Sapp said, but does prevent the drugs the mule was carrying from making their way to the region’s streets.

Drug traffickers expect to lose some product, said Michael Levine, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who is now a consultant. When a courier is busted, he said, investigators need to probe further.

“By just arresting the courier and not conducting an investigation into who sent it and who was receiving it, it’s as if you’re working for the drug traffickers,” he said. “You can prosecute couriers all day long and it means nothing to the operation that’s sending them.”

Peter Carr, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, said authorities try to get information from drug mules about higher-ups in the organization, but are dependent on how much the courier knows.

“In many cases, they don’t know much,” Carr said.

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