Drug smugglers use unconventional methods to conceal contraband

From subs to nuts, in wigs, sculpture, fruit and "wearable heroin," drug smugglers are finding more creative ways to conceal their bootlegged goods.

"There are a myriad of ways to smuggle drugs," said Chuck Prichard, spokesman for the South Florida division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "It's only bounded by your imagination."

Two cases of highly imaginative smuggling surfaced in South Florida recently. Last month the Coast Guard intercepted a semi-submersible submarine holding 15,000 pounds of cocaine. And last weekend, 13 pounds of cocaine were found tucked inside beans and nuts at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

"There's no limit to the ways it can be done," said Bruce Grant, former director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control.

Semi-submersible smuggling subs like the one snared off the coast of Honduras — the first detected in the Caribbean — have been popular for bulk smuggling off the Pacific coast in recent years.

"This definitely shows that the drug traffickers are using new tactics," said Lt. Cmdr. Peter Niles, skipper of one of the Coast Guard cutters that caught the sub.

Smaller amounts of contraband can appear in the oddest of places, such as painstakingly packed into the individual red kidney beans and pistachio nuts found on a woman who arrived from Colombia on Saturday. A suspicious customs officer cut open a bean to reveal the drug.

"It's just whatever the technology of the day affords, and whatever risk the smugglers are willing to take," said Prichard.

Florida and states along the Mexican border are favored locales for smugglers, but airports anywhere in the country can be a conduit for contraband.

Food is a low-tech, but popular, venue among traffickers. In 2009 at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., a man from El Salvador was caught with cocaine in a roasted chicken. The same year another man had 14 pounds of cocaine in chicken soup packets, and last year, again at Dulles, a man was arrested for having four pounds of pot in soup packets.

Puppies and pet products have also been misused. In New York in 2006, authorities found heroin surgically implanted in purebred puppies. Cocaine has been mixed with melted plastic and injected into molds of dog bowls or pet-carrying cases, later to be chopped up and dissolved in acid to yield the drug.

That method has also been used to hide cocaine in plastic buckets, candles and beeswax.

The Department of Homeland Security even has a Science and Technology Directorate to assist front-line officers in combating high-tech smuggling. "We're trying to find technological advances that will help them to counter the creativity of the bad guys," said spokesman John Verrico.

Smugglers have saturated clothing and tablecloths with liquified heroin, later to be boiled with solvent and reduced back to its original form. And then there were the literal "drug mules." Los Angeles authorities in 2009 discovered 1,800 pounds of pot secreted in 200 cement donkeys.

It's an old cat-and-mouse game from the no-booze days. "If you go back to Prohibition, you can find the same kinds of things," Prichard said.

Drug agents are trained to recognize new methods and concealment, and when they make a discovery they inform other agencies. "We're trying everything we can to keep up with the bad guys," Prichard said.

"Law enforcement does something to stop them and then they find another way of smuggling it in," Grant said. "It's much like on a battlefield, where when you do something, the enemy reacts to it and they change their tactics."

Customs officers and drug agents use X-rays, gamma rays and drug-sniffingdogs to screen for contraband. But often it's an officer peering under a pallet with a mirror at the end of a stick — or an inquisitive inspector slicing open a kidney bean — that uncovers the hidden stash.

"Good old officer intuition is what goes into us catching people," Prichard said.

But whether by land, air or sea, traffickers will still find a way to meet demand for their product.

Said Grant: "There's always going to be that element that's going to get through."

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