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Seizures an endless job for border agents

A Customs officer surrounded by bails of marijuana – all seized  within a 10-day period – moves a box of drugs to a shelf in a vault.  Each year in Arizona, $235 million worth of seized drugs are  incinerated.

A Customs officer surrounded by bails of marijuana – all seized within a 10-day period – moves a box of drugs to a shelf in a vault. Each year in Arizona, $235 million worth of seized drugs are incinerated.

NOGALES – The pungent aroma of cannabis fills a dank, cool vault just north of the Mexican border. Shelves are piled with bales of marijuana totaling 27,000 pounds. One rack features boxes of methamphetamine, cocaine and other hard narcotics. Another is stacked with guns taken from smugglers. A file cabinet in the corner contains $500,000 cash.

Each day, U.S. port inspectors and customs agents seize all sorts of contraband along Arizona’s 370-mile southern boundary. Last year’s take includes 1,150 vehicles, more than 6,300 drug loads and dozens of shipments of counterfeit shoes, purses and other commercial products, including computers full of child pornography, night-vision scopes used by human smugglers and agricultural products banned because of parasites.

All that booty, valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, represents a security and logistical challenge for Customs and Border Protection officials who must preserve evidence, prevent theft, sell off valuables and destroy dangerous or illegal items.

Each year in Arizona, $235 million worth of seized drugs go up in smoke. Other booty is burned, crushed, buried, sold or returned to the owner.

Except for confiscated cash and real estate, the government makes very little profit from forfeitures.

“We do make money on some articles, like vehicles,” said Dennis McKenzie, national director of fines, penalties and forfeitures for CBP. “But there are many things that are just a net expense.”

Tight security

The Nogales vault, the largest of three such facilities in Arizona, represents just one stop in the government’s enormous disposal network. Security is tight at the facility, which is surrounded by fences topped with razor wire and signs warning, “Restricted Area.”

There is a lock on the gate, two more on doors leading into the main room. All who pass through must sign successive log sheets as they enter and again when they leave.

A trio of port inspectors arrives from Lukeville with freshly seized marijuana. The men unload sealed boxes and remove tire-shaped bricks of marijuana, removed from the wheels of a pickup truck. The scales are tested for accuracy. Each curved block of pot is cross-checked with a shipment sheet showing the precise total weight: 59.4 kilograms.

Carmen Dominguez’s job is to keep track of nearly all of the contraband seized in southern Arizona.

As Customs supervisor for fines, penalties and forfeitures, she is not so much a property czar as a bureaucrat living by regulations spelled out in federal manuals.

“This is our bible,” Dominguez says, plopping the “Seized Asset Management and Enforcement Procedures Handbook” on her desk.

Rule No. 1, she says, requires any property seized by border officials to be logged into a nationwide computer within 24 hours. Dominguez and a staff of 16 must type a new entry every time an impounded item is moved, sold, adjudicated or otherwise handled. Tracking ends only when the item has been disposed of: returned to the owner, sold, incinerated, thrown away or put to use by the government.

Fixing the system

The government began using forfeiture laws to confiscate large amounts of contraband about three decades ago. By 1995, it had become a veritable industry.

A report that year by the General Accounting Office, now the Government Accountability Office, described the nation’s asset forfeiture program as “a nightmare.” “Tons of illegal drugs and millions of dollars in cash and other property have been vulnerable to theft and misappropriation,” the report said.

McKenzie said an infusion of regulations, manpower and expertise solved those problems. Seven years ago, the program was removed from the GAO’s “high-risk” category.

Where it all goes

No matter what kind of item gets seized, Dominguez said, a record is kept until disposal.

Disposing of hard cash, mostly from drug- and human-smuggling enterprises, is relatively simple.

Seized U.S. currency is held in the vault as evidence, except that loads of $100,000 or more must be banked within 30 days.

Individuals seldom attempt to reclaim cash, so most currency is forfeited and divided up: Some is doled out to informants as reward money. The rest goes into the Treasury’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, which finances law-enforcement efforts.

Dominguez said four-fifths of the seized cars and trucks become government property. A handful are adopted by law-enforcement agencies. The rest are sold.

The companies that handle the auctions receive a percentage of proceeds, with the rest going to the Asset Forfeiture Fund.

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