WASHINGTON (AP) — Bicycle tires, cereal boxes, stereo speakers and cars are among the places where U.S. Customs officials found $11.4 million in cash that people tried to smuggle out of the country.
The result of a six-week nationwide effort called "Operation Powerplay," the confiscated cash was part of a crackdown on money laundering, Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
The operation led to 194 arrests, including people wanted for armed robbery and drug possession, and has given Customs leads to open 173 investigations.
More than half of the cash seized was destined for Mexico, Israel, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Jamaica, Customs said.
Operation Powerplay was "an integral part of our anti-money-laundering strategy," Kelly said Thursday. "We know that bulk-cash shipments are still the way most drug money leaves the country," he added.
Most money laundering involves illicit profits from drug trafficking, prostitution or other criminal activities, which are moved through a series of bank or brokerage accounts to make them appear to be the proceeds of legitimate business activity.
Each day, criminal groups generate huge sums of cash from illegal activities but they face difficulty depositing large amounts into U.S. banks.
As a result, criminals often smuggle cash to foreign locations where it can be more easily deposited into banks. Then it can be instantly wired anywhere, Customs officials said.
There's no limit on the amount of money that a person can legally transport when entering or leaving the United States.
But federal law requires amounts of more than $10,000 (in cash or in such things as travelers checks, cashiers checks and securities that can be easily converted to cash) must be reported to Customs. Those who don't, can have their currency confiscated.
Between 1996 and 1999, Customs has seized $284 million in unreported currency that people attempted to smuggled out of the United States.
To detect hidden currency, Customs officers used a variety of methods, including routine searches, X-ray machines to scan large pieces of cargo and containers, and specially trained dogs to sniff out cash.
"We learned that there is a significant flow of cash going out of the country through a variety of means," Kelly said. "It was an intensified effort to examine what is going out of the country. Our primary focus was on drug-related bulk cash."
During the operation, Customs officers — aided by state and local law enforcement — stepped up outbound detection efforts between July 10 and Aug. 19 at airports, seaports, land borders, mail facilities and courier hubs.
Some seizures resulting from the operation:
$528,908 from packages at FedEx's express courier hub in Memphis.
$231,340 concealed in bicycle tires at Miami International Airport.
$21,592 concealed within a Honey Nut Cheerios cereal box located in trunk of a vehicle searched at Hidalgo, Texas.
$504,712 concealed in a secret compartment under the rear seat of a 1994 Isuzu Trooper.
$65,221, some hidden on an airline passenger at JFK Airport; 46 pellets (each containing seven $100 bills) was swallowed.
$83,546 concealed in a stereo speaker of an airline passenger at Miami International Airport.
On the Net: www.customs.gov