LAREDO, Texas (CN) - A Chicago bus operator owes the federal government $590,000 for the 16 kilos of heroin that Customs agents found at a border checkpoint, federal prosecutors say.
The United States sued Tours & Charters Salgado and its owner David A. Salgado on Jan. 20 in Federal Court.
The Tariff Act requires bus and ship operators entering the country to file a manifest with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that "accurately identifies all merchandise on board the vessel or vehicle" - and Salgado didn't declare the heroin.
Customs agents inspected the company's bus on Jan. 20, 2011 at the Port of Entry in Laredo. "During the course of the inspection, CBP discovered 16.75 kilograms of heroin concealed in the roof of the bus. No heroin was manifested or declared," the complaint states.
The complaint does not state whether anyone was criminally charged.
A Tours & Charters Salgado employee on Friday indicated he didn't know about the lawsuit and said he would forward an emailed copy to Salgado.
Salgado didn't respond over the weekend to the email asking if any of his company's drivers face criminal charges over the heroin.
The Tariff Act of 1930 provides an out for failing to declare illegal narcotics to Customs agents. But that "narrow" liability exception applies only to ship captains and owners, the government says. It fined the company $590,000: the statutory penalty of $1,000 per ounce.
The Justice Department filed a similar lawsuit against another bus operator in July 2014 in McAllen Federal Court.
In that case, the United States sued Turimex, a subsidiary of Grupo Senda, a Mexican company whose bus lines serve 13 Mexican states and 30 U.S. cities, after Customs and Border Protection agents caught two of its drivers trying to smuggle 93 kilos of cocaine into the United States at the Hidalgo Port of Entry in July 2009.
The drivers had stashed the dope in compartments above the entryway of the bus and the driver's seat, the lawsuit said.
Turimex claimed it was not liable since it knew nothing about its drivers' smuggling.
The company balked at the $3.36 million fine so the government agreed to reduce it by 90 percent. The feds sued when Turimex was unwilling to pay the reduced fine.
Turimex reached an undisclosed settlement with the federal government in November 2015, court records show.
Under federal law, heroin is a Schedule I drug, which is defined as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
The penalty for getting caught with one kilo or more is 10 years to life in federal prison and up to a $50 million fine.
Heroin is made of morphine, which is extracted from the seeds of poppy plants grown in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico and Columbia.
It is the most fact-acting opiate, faster-acting than synthetic opiates such as OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine, methadone, and fentanyl, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Heroin addiction has reached epidemic proportions in the Northeast United States, where prescription opiate abusers have switched to heroin because it's more potent and cheaper than pills.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire 2014 State of the State Address to Vermont's growing heroin problem. Baltimore DEA agent Gary Tuggle told NBC News in November that year that the quality of heroin smuggled into the United States has increased dramatically since the late '90s.
"Fifteen years ago, purity levels were between 3 and 5 percent, with 5 percent on the high side. (Now) we're seeing purity levels about 80 percent, and that's scary," Tuggle said.
The price for a kilo fell from about $160,000 to $65,000 during that time, Tuggle said, and the average street dose to $10 to $15 as of November 2014.
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