Internal Revenue Service agents in Texas and New Mexico this week confiscated tanker-trucks and an airplane linked to a Mexican firm involved in the seizure last year of almost 4 tons of cocaine at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego.
Authorities say the Mexican firm and related enterprises have failed to pay more than $11 million in U.S. federal taxes in recent years, prompting the public filing of liens in El Paso and the subsequent seizures.
However, John Miller, a U.S. Customs Service official, said the actions had "no connection" with the criminal inquiry into the cocaine-smuggling cache, which was the largest cocaine haul ever at a U.S. land border crossing and the second-largest ever confiscated in California.
"This is strictly a tax case, it has nothing to do with our investigation," said Miller, spokesman for the Customs Service's regional office in Los Angeles.
The IRS seizures involved the property of five different "interrelated" companies, all of which do business out of El Paso, said Robert Branson, an IRS spokesman in Austin, Tex. Two of the firms are believed to be identical, Branson said, although the same tax liens were issued for both.
The five companies owe back taxes, including corporate, withholding and excise assessments, for the years 1980-90, Branson said. "This is purely for back taxes," Branson said.
One of the targeted firms, Hidro Gas Juarez, based in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and across the Rio Grande from El Paso, owned the gas tanker truck in which customs agents at the Otay Mesa border crossing discovered almost 4 tons of cocaine last Oct. 4. The giant haul--with an estimated street value of $262.5 million--was found concealed inside a tanker-truck that usually ferried liquefied propane gas for sale in Mexico.
The vehicle's driver, Ruben Sanchez Tapia, a Mexican citizen, was allowed to leave the customs post as inspectors searched the truck. He remains a fugitive, officials say, and is believed to have returned to Mexico.
Only one other California cocaine bust--the mammoth stash of 21 tons (42,000 pounds) discovered two years ago in the San Fernando Valley community of Sylmar--exceeds the border seizure in volume, authorities said.
On April 16, IRS agents working on the tax case in New Mexico seized eight tanker-trailers, all designed for transporting liquefied gas, and three trailer rigs without tanks, said Branson, the IRS spokesman. That same day, in a related action, tax agents also seized a twin-engine Cessna Citation at El Paso International Airport, Branson said.
All of the vehicles and the aircraft were owned by Atlas Leasing of El Paso, which, like the other firms named in the federal tax liens, is "interrelated" to Hidro Gas Juarez, Branson said.
White gas tanker-trucks owned by Hidro Gas Juarez have long traversed the border from Tijuana into California, where the vehicles purchased propane gas for resale in Mexico. U.S.-produced propane is widely used in Mexico for cooking and heating.
However, Hidro Gas Juarez stopped shipping gas by truck and switched to railroad transport last month, said Bobbie Cassidy, a customs service spokeswoman in San Diego. She could not say why the firm changed.
Officials of Hidro Gas Juarez and the other four companies named in tax cases could not be reached for comment on Friday in the United States or Mexico.
After the cocaine seizure last October, U.S. authorities had said that officials of Hidro Gas Juarez were cooperating in the investigation.
A prominent Ciudad Juarez merchant family named Zaragoza has an ownership interest in Hidro Gas Juarez operations in both Mexico and the United States, said John Miller, the customs spokesman in Los Angeles.
On April 17, the day after the IRS seizures in New Mexico, the IRS spokesman said, agents raided the El Paso home of Eduardo and Dagmar Zaragoza Fuentes, and seized $275,000 worth of property, including three luxury vehicles--a 1982 Rolls-Royce, a 1986 Mercedes 560-SL, and a 1987 BMW 325. Also confiscated, Branson said, were assorted jewelry, cash, paintings and sculptures.
The couple owes $21.9 million in personal income taxes for the years 1984-88, Branson said.
The IRS spokesman could not say if the Zaragoza involved in the April 17 seizures was a member of the same family that has an ownership interest in Hidro Gas Juarez. The official could also not comment on the source of income of the Zaragoza couple named in the federal lien.