You gotta watch for that dangerous chorizo... LOL
Border agents seize drugs, guns - and chorizo
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
BROWNSVILLE — Though border agents continue to watch for smugglers of guns, drugs and the usual dangerous contraband, their work this time of year takes on a decidedly holiday flavor as they also nab forbidden Mexican sausages, tamales and poinsettias.
Border traffic is thick with families on the move for holidays, but the car packed to the gills with gifts and coolers draws customs agents to check for items many don't think of as illegal.
"They want to take some of the flavor of the home country to friends or relatives they may be visiting," said Roger Maier, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, where a Mexican-style bologna is a favorite yet impermissible holiday item.
The holiday trafficking usually starts after Thanksgiving and typically includes raw pork to fill tamales, guavas, hawthorn fruit and sugar cane for a hot rum-spiked Christmas punch known as ponche navideno, potted poinsettias and miniature Nativity scenes in which dried grass in the manger could be harboring pests.
"It's usually the same items over and over again," said Felix Garza, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the upper Rio Grande Valley.
Most of the time, a family smuggling a cooler of tamales home isn't trying to conceal them, said Jared Franklin, the agency's supervisory agricultural specialist in Brownsville. They are blissfully or perhaps, purposely, ignorant of the rules.
Sometimes, though, the smuggling effort is obvious, as when a South Texas woman stuffed chorizo in baby diapers in October. She lost her pork sausage and was fined $300. Or another woman who stuffed a bird down her blouse.
"It's really hard to be surprised after you've worked here awhile," Franklin said.
Much of the food that customs agents confiscate is available legally in the U.S., but in travelers' minds, "it's better than what you get at H-E-B," Franklin said. And sometimes they just don't realize what they are carrying is an agricultural product, as in the case of the Nativity scenes.
The safe bet, customs agents say, is to declare everything. The agents will decide what can pass and will confiscate what can't, but at least by declaring, travelers can avoid fines for smuggling.
"If you try to smuggle and conceal it, obviously we're going to come down hard on you," said Angelica de Cima, Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman in San Diego.
For four days after Thanksgiving, Customs and Border Protection agents ran Operation Wishbone in Eagle Pass.
Their take would have made a nice stand at a farmer's market: a variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and sugar cane.
In all, the cornucopia comprised 57 plant products, 13 seizures of cut flowers, 23 seizures of prohibited animal products and 81 pest interceptions. Agents issued 13 fines totaling $2,775.
Most people are not happy about losing a favorite delicacy, but Franklin swears that a traveler's chorizo does not become a customs agent's breakfast. "It all gets destroyed, 100 percent of it," Franklin said.
So, why is a sack of guavas a matter of national security?
The Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak of the 1980s is one of the agency's examples. It cost California and the federal government $100 million to get rid of the fruit fly after one traveler carried in one contaminated piece of fruit.
There are exceptions to the seizure rules. For example, though apples, chicken and pork are a no-go, bananas, beef and goat meat will probably make it. Customs agents recommend checking their Web site, cbp.gov, in advance to find out how specific items will be treated.
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