By Eileen Sullivan
WASHINGTON — U.S. and Colombian authorities seized $41 million in suspected drug money over the past two weeks - one of the largest seizures in the history of the countries' joint efforts, law enforcement officials said Monday.
The first seizure came Sept. 9 at a Colombian port where inspectors found $11.2 million in two containers. The bundles of $20 bills were tightly bound in plastic wrapping and hidden in shipments of ammonium sulfate - material commonly used for fertilizer. Using that seizure as a lead, officials went on to find nearly $30 million more at Colombian and Mexican ports over a nine-day period.
These seizures are significant because they show the sophistication of international organized criminals, which is "a warning sign for all of us," said John Morton, the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The way these criminals exploited lawful trade between Colombia and Mexico is no easy task, Morton said. ICE headed the investigation that led to the initial seizure.
No arrests have been made as of Monday, and the investigation is ongoing, Morton said. Officials are operating under a strong suspicion that the money belonged to drug dealers, he said. Morton said proceeds such as these from drug sales are typically used to purchase weapons, mansions and fancy cars and to buy off local officials.
The ports in Buenaventura, Colombia and Manzanillo, Mexico - where inspectors found the cash - are considered key points on a smuggling route for sending cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and from sending cash back to Colombia, officials said.
Drug traffickers are finding more sophisticated ways to smuggle drugs and cash each day, Brig Gen. Luis Moore of the Colombian National Police said through a translator.
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This was the largest amount of money ever seized at a Colombian port, officials said.