Note: Nothing in this one about DEA assisting. Interesting also
that no "walkers", that we know of, or can remember, have been picked
up on the way back, with a load of cash. Nor with a load of weapons
US faces tough fight in cash smuggling crackdown
Associated Press | Posted: Saturday, February 11, 2012 5:38 pm |
This undated photo, provided by U.S. Immigrations and Customs
Enforcement (ICE), shows bulk cash seized during a combined ICE and
Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) operation. Immigration agents
report a rising number of cash seizures and arrests in the past half-
dozen years as criminals, sidestepping scrutiny from banks over
electronic transfers, resort to using cash to conceal proceeds from
drug trafficking as they move the money south to crime rings in
Mexico and elsewhere. (AP Photo/ICE)
Jeanette Barraza-Galindo conspicuously left her bags of teddy bears
and throw pillows on a bus during an inspection at the Texas-Mexico
border _ and professed ignorance about the $277,556 officers found
hidden inside. The bags were handed to her at a bus station, gifts to
be given to a child upon her return to Mexico, she told investigators.
The crime she pleaded guilty to _ bulk cash smuggling _ is
increasingly drawing the attention and resources of federal
authorities responsible for fighting drug trafficking across the
border. Federal immigration authorities say their investigations have
yielded more cash seizures and arrests in the past half-dozen years
as criminals, sidestepping scrutiny from banks over electronic
transfers, resort to using cash to conceal drug trafficking and move
money to crime rings in Mexico and elsewhere.
It's similar to the tactic taken in fighting terrorism: crippling
financing networks before the money ends up with leaders of drug
cartels and trafficking rings. But the flow is hard to stop.
Officials in both the U.S. and Mexico are realizing that criminal
enterprises, just like other businesses, can't operate without a
steady cash stream, said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border
Institute at the University of San Diego, which promotes scholarship
of border issues.
"We're shifting our strategy to a more diverse strategy of not just
going after bad guys and arresting them, but also going after their
guns, going after their money," he said.
It's illegal to try to smuggle more than $10,000 in undeclared cash
across the border. Officials say the crime is often connected to
other illegal activities including drug trafficking, gambling and
credit card fraud. Money that's seized is deposited into government
The problem is not new, but there are signs of heightened emphasis.
The Obama administration says targeting bulk cash smuggling is a
prong of its strategy against transnational crime. Congressional
panels held hearings on the issue last year. U.S. Immigration and
Customs Enforcement reported more than $150 million in seized cash
and 428 arrests in bulk cash smuggling investigations in fiscal year
2011, up from $7.3 million and 48 in fiscal year 2005, according to
And a cash smuggling center in Vermont that opened in 2009 and is run
by ICE's homeland security investigations has expanded operations,
officials announced in December.
But experts say measuring the impact of the beefed-up focus is tricky.
It's hard to track cash's origin and destination _ and investigators
can't always count on help from couriers, who may be more afraid
cooperating than of spending a few years in prison. Plus, the amount
seized represents a fraction of the total money at stake. Estimates
cited by federal authorities suggest at least $18 billion in illicit
proceeds is laundered across the southwestern border each year.
A 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office said staffing
and infrastructure at the border were limiting success in detecting
large quantities of cash, and also highlighted another, continuing
problem: the use of prepaid, stored value cards to move money.
"I call this winning the battle, losing the war. Sure, $90 million
sounds like a lot," said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami
international studies professor who researches drug trafficking.
"That's nothing in comparison to the $19 to $39 billion that's being
returned" across the border.
Cash smuggling, though a seemingly elementary form of money
laundering, has emerged as a seductive medium for criminals as banks
have become more sophisticated in spotting suspicious transactions.
Cash has built-in advantages, too: It can be transferred without a
trace and is instantly available.
"The financial industry has done a much better job in terms of trying
to keep out illicit money, and as a result the organizations adapt
and then they go to some tried-and-true methods _ and, that is,
they're bulking it up and sending it where it needs to go," said
Joseph Burke, chief of ICE's National Bulk Cash Smuggling Center in
Criminal organizations generally move contraband north across the
border. The money they make, in turn, flows south.
Burke said the money is often collected at consolidation hubs _
perhaps a home in a residential neighborhood or a warehouse _ and
distributed among several couriers. Dividing the cash into smaller
chunks means less money will be lost if one courier is arrested. Drug
trafficking groups recruit relatives, associates and those lower in
the organization _ like those who might need to pay off debt to the
cartel _ sometimes dangling as incentive a percentage of the amount
of money being transported.
Couriers have assorted methods for moving the money, including
strapping it to their body, hiding it in car compartments, stacking
it on pallets and concealing it in vacuum-packed bags.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has increased the size of the
border patrol and begun screening more vehicle traffic and southbound
rail traffic for weapons and cash since the Obama administration
announced a new southwestern border initiative in March 2009, agency
officials said at congressional hearings last year.
But the accountability office report said CBP needs better data on
how successful its efforts have been and more consistent, full-time
enforcement. The office said its investigators tested three border
ports of entry, with shredded cash hidden in the car.
At two sites, the report said, the cars were allowed to turn around
without being searched or the driver questioned. The vehicle wasn't
physically inspected at the third, though officers did use an X-Ray
Efrain Perez, a program manager with CBP, said patrol officers are
vigilant about looking for suspicious behavior, but it's impossible
to catch every single person.
"We know we're can't talk to 100 percent" (of drivers). It's like
looking for a needle in a haystack, but we put a lot of resources out
there," he said.
Authorities can point to some successful, large-scale investigations,
including one _ Operation Pacific Rim _ that ICE credits with
disrupting a powerful cocaine smuggling organization. In that
investigation, authorities intercepted at seaports in Colombia and
Mexico $41 million in shrink-wrapped cash hidden within shipments of
fertilizer, and broadened it out to score arrests by locating the
cartel's smuggling routes.
Meanwhile, activity continues steadily _ mostly, but not always,
along the southwestern border.
The cases this month include a U.S. citizen from Mexico who was
caught in California with $277,770 in cash, wrapped in bundles and
concealed in the rear panels of the car, and the discovery in
Illinois of $572,045 in a rental van driven by a man authorities said
had a history of marijuana trafficking, according to a law
enforcement bulletin obtained by The Associated Press.
Barraza, the woman stopped with the stuffed animals and throw pillows
last March, caught the attention of border patrol officers after she
ignored instructions for passengers to remove belongings from the
bus. She later pleaded guilty to illegally concealing the money,
though charging documents don't explicitly state the motive. She was
sentenced in September to two years in prison. Her lawyer didn't
Perez said the evolving methods of some couriers indicate progress in
"The smugglers, the drug traffickers, know we're out there, and they
adapt. And so do we."
Read more: http://azstarnet.com/news/us/us-faces-tough-fight-in-cash-