3:44pm

Fri December 9, 2011
The Salt

When Smugglers Try To Transport Drugs In Cheese

There's a river of nacho cheese flowing north from Mexico to the United States. This week, a would-be drug smuggler thought 7 pounds of methamphetamine might go unnoticed in the stream.

But the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials nabbed him as he tried to cross into San Diego from Tijuana carrying the methamphetamine tucked into cans of cheese sauce and jalapeños. Officials identified the drugs through an X-ray and valued the stash at $140,000, the L.A. Times reports.

Smugglers are known for their creative means of getting drugs across the border, and many of them look to food to disguise the illicit cargo's bulk and scent, according to Joe Garcia, deputy special agent in charge for Homeland Security investigations in San Diego.

This week's exploit wasn't the first time Garcia has seen a failed mission involving cheese. On November 30, a different driver was nailed for transporting nearly 7 pounds of meth in 3 cans of processed food. In October, another customs officer in San Diego found 7 pounds of meth split among cans of cheese and jalapeños.

For decades, drug dealers have been stuffing their illegal products into strange vessels. Smugglers have caught with everything from hidden compartments in luggage and secret stashes deep in the bellies of cars to hollowed out Bibles or even human bodies stuffed with cocaine.

Watermelons hiding weed and heroin masquerading as macaroni are just a few foods in the mix. The hope is they will trick drug-sniffing dogs, X-ray machines and density meters planted at the border.

"This time of year we see more people trying to get stuff across the border with food products," Garcia tells The Salt. That's because this is the time of year when immigrants and others seek out special ingredients that may only be available on the Mexican side for their holiday feasts.

But don't think that pungent Christmas spices will throw off the canine units, Garcia warns. "I've seen people use chili powder, coffee grounds, detergent and grease [to hide drugs]," he says. "But it's amazing what the canine can detect." The canine units can, of course, smell drugs, but they have been trained to tell when a product has been tampered with.

Sometimes officials don't even need to dogs to spot something fishy. In May 2005, customs officials in Miami were inspecting a cargo of plantains, but some of the fruit looked a little odd, according to an agency newsletter. Upon closer look, they deduced that some of the plantains were fakes made of fiberglass and painted to resemble the real deal. Officials sliced them open and 750 pounds of cocaine poured out.

Smugglers on other continents also seem to favor food as a smuggling vessel. Last week, Australian authorities seized 216 kilograms of heroin hidden in raisin boxes, according to a report by the Sunday Morning Herald. It's not just human food either. In 2009, dog food bags confiscated in El Paso, Tex., contained 530 pounds of marijuana. A drug sniffing dogs actually identified those bags.

But what's the weirdest food Garcia has seen used?

"It's pretty bizarre to put it in processed cheese," he says.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.