Contraband Unlimited

A great deal of government and media chatter is focused on the U.S.-Mexico trade in drugs, guns and illicit cash. Yet much less attention is paid to the flow of other contraband products, perhaps less sexy to the mass media, but arguably having an equal or greater impact on the economy, environment, public health and state coffers of the border region and far beyond. In Ciudad Juarez and southern New Mexico, a recent series of law enforcement actions and news reports exposed a few more shadowy corners of the massive contraband economy.

On October 1, Ciudad Juarez municipal police who were reportedly probing a homicide ended up in a warehouse in the La Cuesta section of the Mexican border city. Inside the building, officers found 120 boxes of illegally imported Chinese cigarettes and 18 cases of Torres and Buchannan’s whiskies, the latter brand a trendy and pricey booze popular among the free-spending set in Mexico. The items were discovered concealed in used bus tires that were packed in a truck trailer parked inside the warehouse, as well as in a pair of vehicles.

In addition to detaining five persons, city police seized three vehicles, including one with U.S. license plates.

Subsequently turned over to the federal attorney general’s office (PGR) and jailed, the suspects were identified as Victor Valadez Contreras, Edgar Omar Velarde, Adan Sanabria Valles, Gustavo Garcia Gardea, and Nacin Karin Sosa Armendariz.  Gardea was also accused of attempting to pay local cops a $400 bribe in return for setting him and his friends free.

According to the Ciudad Juarez public safety department, the La Cuesta contraband was part of a much larger shipment of thousands of boxes that crossed into Ciudad Juarez from El Paso on Sunday, September 30. Mexican customs, military and police personnel could be implicated in facilitating a contraband ring that reportedly paid more than one thousand dollars in weekly bribes.

On October 2, municipal police stopped a truck at an intersection of the Pan American Highway and arrested 47-year-old driver Guillermo Muela Leal after finding hundreds of boxes packed with knapsacks, underwear, wallets, suitcases and other goods suspected of illegal importation. The truck was reportedly headed to Guadalajara.

In a third incident, the 67-year-old driver of a truck with Texas license plates was detained October 3 by city police near the Rio Bravo Industrial Park  for illegally importing a ton-and-a-half of potatoes into Mexico.

Asked by a reporter to comment on the spate of arrests, Ciudad Juarez Police Chief Julian Leyzaola responded that “contraband is also a crime and we will continue combating it.”

Cesar Augusto Peniche, Chihuahua delegate for the PGR, said authorities were stepping up operations against illegal merchandise, commonly referred to as “fayuca” in Mexico, as the fall shopping and holiday season approaches.

“We know that cases of contraband headed to the south of the country increase during this season, and we have implemented a strategy to try intercepting illicit shipments of merchandise and locating the people who are behind these shipments,” Peniche said.

Another current investigation, however, could point back at government employees.  Last week, federal tax and anti-corruption officials initiated a probe into the disappearance of confiscated contraband goods and vehicles which apparently disappeared from Ciudad Juarez warehouses accessed by federal employees.

Estimates of the size of the informal economy in Mexico, which encompasses many illegally imported products, range up to $80 billion in annual sales, a sum that far exceeds income streams from illegal drugs, direct foreign investment, migrant remittances and oil sales, if each sector is counted separately.

In the informal sector, articles of used clothing imported from the United States are among the hottest-selling goods. A recent story in El Diario de Juarez described the El Paso-Juarez segment of the trade as highly organized and even conducted on the Internet. A merchant who requested anonymity compared the business with organized crime. “We are looking at a business in which a lot of money moves. You can’t imagine how much,” the merchant was quoted. “It is a very profitable business.”

In response to El Diario’s report, Alejandro Seade Terrrazas, president of the Ciudad Juarez branch of the National Chamber of Commerce, complained that while illegally imported clothing-likely manufactured in China and other low-wage havens- is sold freely, federal red-tape makes it difficult for businesses to sell legally imported clothing and toys from China.

On the United States side of the border, meanwhile, the U.S. Border and Customs Protection agency seized snake and armadillo skin products September 28 at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in southern New Mexico.

In a statement on the confiscation, the CPB said the driver of a vehicle entering the U.S. attempted to hide the materials but was discovered and fined $500 for failure to declare. A total of 332 python skins, six python skin wallets and five armadillo skin wallets were confiscated and turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“CPB officers enforce hundreds of laws for dozens of federal agencies including fish and wildlife,” said CBP Port Director Joanne Thale-Lembo. “This incident was a clear case of someone trying to circumvent laws intended to protect wildlife.”

Additional sources:, October 12, 2012., October 4 and 5, 2012. Articles by Felix A. Gonzalez. El Diario de Juarez, October 1, 2, 3, 5, 2012. Articles by Gabriela Minjares and editorial staff.  El Universal, April 26, 2012. Article by Eduardo Camacho.

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