Amid its regular stream of news releases announcing hard drug seizures at Nogales ports of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection last month reported a different type of bust.
On May 10, the agency said, officers performing outbound operations at the Mariposa crossing discovered two large bundles of unreported U.S. currency in the rear seats of a Ford sedan headed for Mexico. The packages contained nearly $96,000, CBP said.
In the early 2010s, local seizures of the suspected proceeds from illegal drug sales tended to be frequent and often involved large amounts of cash – such as the $1.6 million in undeclared currency found in a Toyota pickup truck at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in June 2013, or the more than $1 million pulled from a mini-van trying to cross into Mexico through the same port in June 2011.
The May 10 seizure of $96,000, however, was the first cash bust at a Nogales port of entry announced by CBP since mid-2016. It was the first such bust made known to the NI through court records since April 13, 2017.
CBP statistics show that nationwide, the agency’s cash seizures had declined from $147 million in fiscal year 2010 to less than half that amount in fiscal year 2018.
Clearly, Mexican drug cartels are still making piles of cash from smuggling narcotics into the United States. So why isn’t the money being seized at the ports like it was before?
Juan Mariscal, assistant special agent in charge with Homeland Security Investigations in Nogales, attributed the decline to a change in tactics by smugglers.
“Once we start to catch on what the smuggling organizations are doing, they change their procedures or tactics,” Mariscal said.
One way that the smuggling organizations have shifted gears is by transporting smaller amounts of cash at a time, he said. By keeping the load under the $10,000 reporting requirement, its easier to argue that it’s legitimate.
Another technique, Mariscal said, is concealing the cash loads in well-hidden vehicle compartments that can be very difficult to detect.
“There are some compartments that are operated, that are opened by an electronic switch in the vehicle… Those are very hard to detect,” Mariscal explained, adding that he has witnessed cash hidden in electronic compartments within fenders and speaker boxes of cars crossing the ports. “There’s no clues as far as markings or scratches, no indication that the vehicle has been tampered with.”
As local and federal law enforcement seized more and more assets under civil forfeiture laws, the practice came under increased scrutiny, to the point that then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in January 2015 a prohibition against federal adoption of property and cash seized by state and local law enforcement, unless it was related to weapons or child pornography.
However, Mariscal said federal agencies are still as focused on cash smuggling as they were about three years ago, despite the controversy surrounding civil forfeitures.
“The standard to seize the money or any property or asset is still the same,” he said.
NPD and ’S-ball’
Local cash seizures weren’t only a common occurrence at the ports of entry, either. Nogales Police Department officers, backed by a grant known informally as “S-ball,” used to be a common presence on Interstate 19 as they looked for smugglers headed to Mexico with loads of drug money.
In the first 14 months of the program starting in 2011, NPD officers stopped 4,504 private and commercial vehicles and searched 1,185 of them, seizing $824,745 in currency in the process. The effort was so fruitful, former Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkham began planning to build a new police station with the seized cash.
But by 2015, the S-ball grant, which had been funded by $50 million that the Arizona Attorney General’s Office received in a 2010 settlement with Western Union in a money-laundering suit, had run out.
“At this point, we’re no longer in any S-ball operations,” Lt. Carlos Jimenez said at the time.
The NI asked current Chief Roy Bermudez for an update on his department’s anti-cash-smuggling efforts, and if he thought there was more cash to be seized on I-19 if there were grant funds to support an operation.
However, Bermudez declined to comment for this story.