The furniture just didn't look right. And, it certainly wouldn't be the first time smugglers hid drugs inside containers coming from Puerto Rico.
When officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection took a closer look at cabinets, desks and dressers that had been shipped to Petty's Island in Pennsauken on Nov. 2, 2017, they discovered false walls in cabinets and drawer dividers that made compartments look smaller than usual. Behind the dividers, officials said, they found 709 pounds of cocaine, the largest seizure in a Philadelphia-area port in the last 10 years, Stephen Sapp, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said Monday.
Hurricane Irma has created a frenzy of port activity since it hit the island in September. Law enforcement has been watching closely what has been coming and going.
"Customs and Border Protection knows that transnational drug trafficking organizations will take advantage of natural disasters, and in this case an island struggling to recover from a crippling hurricane, to smuggle dangerous drugs to our nation's mainland," said Joseph Martella, acting director of the Port of Philadelphia. "Officers remain ever-vigilant to interdict narcotics loads, and we are pleased to have stopped this deadly poison shipment before it could hurt our communities."
The 709 pounds of cocaine had a street value of $22 million, customs said in a statement. This was the sixth largest cocaine seizure, and 10th largest seizure of any illicit drug, in the Port of Philadelphia, Sapp said.
In an interview, Sapp said imaging equipment showed an unusual density to the furniture, and detected false dividers and a suspicious brick pattern, which led to the inspection and investigation.
Agents at the custom's Centralized Examination Station in Philadelphia emptied the container, and discovered 256 bricks of white powder that field tested positive for cocaine, Sapp said.
A much-smaller drug bust happened on Nov. 28 at the port. Officers found nearly 30 pounds of cocaine inside a wooden chest headed to Cinnaminson. That was also shipped out of Puerto Rico.
Officials said the Nov. 2 bust was the largest cocaine seizure in Philadelphia since March 8, 2007, when officers found 864 pounds of cocaine concealed in a shipping container from the Dominican Republic. This was the second significant cocaine seizure from Puerto Rico — officers discovered 386 pounds of cocaine in the body of a Chevrolet pickup truck on July 9, 2012, officials said. More recently, 363 pounds of cocaine was found in boxes of pumpkins and squash from Costa Rica on Sept. 17, 2015.
"This seizure is an excellent example of how Customs and Border Protection officers leverage imaging technology to detect and intercept an immense amount of cocaine cleverly concealed in a shipment of furniture," said Casey Owen Durst, Customs field operations director in Baltimore and the agency's commander in the mid-Atlantic region. "Narcotics interdiction remains an enforcement priority for Customs and Border Protection, and a mission that we take very seriously."