In one of the largest drug busts at the port of Baltimore in years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seized two gym bags stuffed with nearly 128 pounds of cocaine from a Panamanian shipping container.
Customs agents put the estimated street value of the drugs at $4 million.
"'Tis the season for giving, but sometimes it's better to just seize," the agency said Tuesday in a statement announcing the Dec. 18 bust.
The last cocaine seizure of such significant weight at the port was in 2007, when 310 pounds of the drug was found in three duffel bags inside a refrigerated container arriving from Ecuador, customs officials said.
So far, no arrests have been made in connection with the cocaine seizure, but how the drugs came to be in the container and their intended destination are under investigation, said Steve Sapp, a customs spokesman.
"Anyone with access to that container from the moment it started getting filled up to the moment we opened it up could have thrown the bags in there," Sapp said. "In these types of things, it's really hard to get a lead."
Heroin is more commonly found coming into Baltimore than cocaine, and smuggled drugs are more often found at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport than at the port, Sapp said.
The bags at the port were first identified by a large X-ray machine that officials use to scan containers, a technology that allows agents to do in minutes what used to take them hours.
"Twenty years ago, our guys would have had to pop open a container and look through everything by hand," Sapp said. Instead, the X-ray machine spotted an "anomaly" amid the boxes of auto parts in the container from Colon, Panama, tipping off agents that something was awry.
The anomaly turned out to be "two gym bags that contained a combined 50 bricks of a white-powdery substance that field-tested positive for cocaine," customs officials said.
Sapp said a majority of seizures at the port are small amounts of marijuana, often from people coming back from cruises to the Caribbean. According to the customs agency, agents at the port of Baltimore seized less than a pound of cocaine in 2012. In 2011, agents seized nearly 22 pounds. In 2007, they seized 526 pounds of cocaine, including the 310-pound duffel bag bust.
"When we do see something this big, it tends to be a little alarming, so we'll take a closer look at containers coming in from Panama," Sapp said.
The investigation into the seized cocaine bricks could be complicated. There are many possible ways the criminals who placed the drugs in the auto parts container could have planned to retrieve them, Sapp said.
First, there could be an "internal conspiracy" involving retrieving the bag, but that's not the most likely scenario, Sapp said.
He said drug syndicates can easily record the number of a container, watch for it as it leaves the port and either intercept the truck on its way to its destination or collect the drugs from the final destination stealthily or by force.
Many drug seizures never lead to prosecution.
"Until we get some type of a tip or lead, it will just go on the back burner until we can find something more concrete to investigate," Sapp said.
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Since 1994, much of the Baltimore-Washington region has been part of a "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area" identified by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which first began identifying such areas under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.
Thomas Carr, director of the Washington-Baltimore HIDTA, said in an email that most drugs seized in the Baltimore area are taken from cars. Sources and seizures have revealed that drugs traveling through the port are usually headed to New York and Philadelphia, and make their way back down to Maryland by car to be sold, he said.
"Insofar as the port of Baltimore, while it certainly has the potential of being a major transportation hub, and we make every attempt to closely monitor activities at the port, the latest seizure is uncharacteristic," he said.