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Marijuana Found in Familiar SUVs

In Arizona, the U.S. Border Patrol finds drugs in two vehicles just like theirs. Almost.

February 20, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Federal agents know how resourceful drug smugglers can be in the daily cat-and-mouse game along the U.S.-Mexico border, but even they were impressed by an ingenious ploy uncovered in Arizona on Wednesday.

Near Palominas, agents discovered two SUVs painted to resemble U.S. Border Patrol vehicles -- and loaded with nearly a ton of marijuana.

Border Patrol and U.S. Customs agents made the discovery in the predawn darkness, when they chased and stopped a 2000 Dodge Durango and 2001 Ford Expedition crossing illegally through the desert from Mexico.

"It was dark. The agents didn't know they were chasing vehicles painted like Border Patrol units until they stopped them. Everyone was surprised," said Border Patrol Agent Frank Amarillas, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.

Inside the SUVs, agents found about 1,900 pounds of marijuana, he said. One driver was taken into custody and the other jumped out and escaped to Mexico, Amarillas said.

Each truck was painted white and green and emblazoned with the familiar Border Patrol logo, along with phony white U.S. government plates. The Expedition even had police lights on the roof.

Even without the marijuana in the back, however, the Expedition probably would have raised suspicion on the street: It was sporting flashy magnesium rims.

"You won't find mags [wheels] on a lot of Border Patrol units," said Amarillas, who noted that many Border Patrol SUVs look battered.

In Washington, Border Patrol spokesman Mario Villarreal marveled at "the smugglers' ingenuity."

"In the past, we've seized loads in vehicles modified or painted to resemble a UPS delivery truck in Arizona; cable TV truck complete with a boom in the back in Texas; and in San Diego a vehicle that resembled a San Diego Gas & Electric truck. But we've never seen anything like this before. Who would've thought," Villarreal said.

Customs agents took custody of the vehicles, the marijuana and the driver, who will be charged with drug smuggling, authorities said.

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