Each year, billions of dollars in illegal narcotics circle the globe, feeding the demand of millions of users.
At every step, authorities try to intercept the drugs and apprehend their purveyors. In response, traffickers have developed a variety of inventive ways to obscure their illicit goods.
On the US-Mexico border, a preferred method among traffickers seems to be concealing drugs in shipments of food.
At the end of October, Customs and Border Protection agents found 3 pounds of meth hidden in a package of tortillas.
That was just a few weeks after CBP agents in San Diego intercepted 3,100 pounds of marijuana concealed in a shipment of cucumbers.
Those incidents came after similar seizures over the summer.
In August, border agents uncovered more than 4,000 pounds of marijuana hidden among limes. In two incidents in early July, border agents found well over 200 pounds of meth hidden in shipments of jalapeños and cucumbers.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ways traffickers have used food to disguise their wares.
Stuffed chili peppers and fake carrots
Drug traffickers have often mixed legitimate business with their illicit activities, in part so that the former can conceal the latter. Vaunted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, now in prison in Mexico, was no exception.
“He opened a cannery in Guadalajara and began producing thousands of cans stamped ‘Comadre Jalapeños,’ stuffing them with cocaine,” Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in his New York Times Magazine profile of Guzmán, before “vacuum-sealing them and shipping them to Mexican-owned grocery stores in California.”
In one instance, according to a court in San Diego, 1,400 boxes of canned peppers, containing “hundreds of kilos of cocaine,” were intercepted at the border.
More recently, officials in Texas discovered a shipment of marijuana wrapped in orange tape and a concealed within a cargo of carrots. The bust uncovered more than a ton of weed worth a half-million dollars.
Drugs hidden within food shipments can make it deep into the US. In December 2015, police in Chicago were tipped off to the arrival of a tomato shipment with nearly 120 pounds of cocaine in it – drugs with a street value of almost $7 million.
Watermelons, pineapples, and other produce
In February 2014, just a few days before Guzmán was captured for the second time, it was reported that authorities in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state, seized more than 4,000 cucumbers and plantains stuffed with cocaine.
In another case, a checkpoint in Arizona came across a shipment of marijuana that had been packaged in green plastic with yellow streaks – giving the bundles the appearance of watermelons.
Authorities on the US-Mexico border have also discovered crystal meth hidden in pineapples.
In August 2014, CBP officers at George Bush airport in Houston intercepted nine bags holding 7 ounces of cocaine hidden inside tamales, which were contained in a box of 200 tamales the traveler – a man from El Salvador – didn’t disclose to authorities.
Sweets seem to be a source of inspiration for drug traffickers.
Some time in late 2014 or early 2015, Mexico soldiers confiscated packages of donuts covered not in powdered sugar, but instead “were sprinkled with cocaine,” according to BBC Mundo.
In late 2013, authorities in San Andrés Island in Colombia, a popular tourist destination, found almost 2.2 pounds of cocaine hidden in 12 donuts.
Authorities have also came across cakes stuffed with amphetamines, BBC Mundo notes.
At the end of November, CBP agents at the Orlando international airport arrested a man accused of carrying 9.5 pounds of cocaine hidden inside candies.
In 2009, Mexican marines searching a shipment of frozen sharks in Progreso, Yucatán, found packets of cocaine hidden inside the dead fish – “one of the strangest discoveries” yet made, BBC Mundo noted.
The shipment of doped-up sharks was not the only attempt to conceal narcotics in seafood.
According to Radden Keefe, “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel also made use of fish shipments, hoping the nature of the cargo would turn away prying eyes – and noses.
The cartel packaged drugs “in truckloads of fish (which inspectors at a sweltering checkpoint might not want to detain for long),” Radden Keefe wrote.
Not content to just hide cocaine within food items, traffickers have also been caught concealing the drug by changing its physical state.
Officials in Chile seized nearly 4 pounds of cocaine in a cream form hidden inside three shampoo bottles, according to news site BioBioChile.
“It’s the first time we have detected drugs in a semi-solid state and with chemical modification to not produce odor,” said Ricardo Aceituno, regional customs director in northern Chile.
Aceituno said cocaine had been found in liquid form, hidden in the gas tanks of cars and trucks, “but never in a semi-solid state and with the characteristics of this case.”