Internal smuggling practice all comes out in the end

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    Internal smuggling practice all comes out in the end

    Normally, people making connections at Philadelphia International Airport are simply passing through this area.

    But two travelers stood out recently because something was passing through them.

    The men, taking an indirect route from Jamaica to Bermuda, had allegedly gulped down a combined 113 drug-filled pellets -- packing more than a pound and a half of hashish -- before flying into Philly, authorities say.

    The practice, called internal smuggling, isn't new "but it is rare for Philadelphia," said Allan Martocci, the region's port director for Customs and Border Protection.

    Of course, I had to know more.

    So I called Steve Sapp, a CBP spokesman, wondering just how the agency's enforcement officers had picked out these guys -- who arrived on separate days -- from all the other passengers flooding into the overseas terminal. What investigative techniques can penetrate a digestive tract? And whose job is it to recover the evidence?

    Well, the first thing I learned is how much I don't know about customs enforcement. For instance, Sapp told me, well before you arrive at customs, enforcement officers know you're coming.

    "Before a plane leaves a foreign destination, it's required to provide a passenger and cargo manifest (to CBP)," he said. That information then is scrutinized for potential red flags, such as a pattern of young men following a suspected drug route.

    Now, some cases are easier than others.

    Consider that a drug-sniffing dog greets flights arriving in Philadelphia from Holland. That likely surprised a man whose souvenirs of an Amsterdam vacation last November included leftover hashish.

    "He said something to the effect that it was really, really good hash," Sapp explained.

    Other smugglers are more challenging.

    Since Sapp arrived in Philadelphia early last year, enforcement officers there have found cocaine in an airline catering cart, marijuana inside African masks and more than 100 pounds of khat, a leafy plant that's chewed for a stimulant effect, concealed in computer hard drives.

    Officers also have seized shipments of destructive beetles, alleged love potions and -- because they violated agriculture restrictions -- pears, peppers, persimmons and potted plants.

    But last month's busts of the two Bermudans was a first for Sapp in this region.

    "The drug-smuggling rings will pay couriers, or mules. They really take advantage of these people, who get about $2,000," says Sapp. He notes pellets, typically made from condoms or the fingers of a latex glove, can have a fatal effect if they burst inside a carrier.

    The suspects in Philadelphia were X-rayed and held under guard at a hospital until -- well, you know.

    "We kind of encourage the evidence to show up," said Sapp. "We give the suspect something to move the process along.

    And when the suspect finally obliges, who goes in after the evidence?

    "He does," Sapp says. "He's got to recover it and clean it."

    Just one more reason to obey the law, children.

    By the way, Sapp said these smugglers are also called "swallowers." And they have counterparts who take a very different approach. "They're the stuffers," he said.

    I'd explain that in detail, but luckily, we've just run out of space.

    Jim Walsh'

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