HACKENSACK, N.J. -- First, they intercepted watermelons, then cauliflower. After that came sweet yellow peppers.
Recently, state police in Ridgefield impounded yet another big truck hauling drugs smuggled in crates of produce. This time it was Spanish onions that concealed a ton of marijuana.
Over the past 18 months, New Jersey state troopers have intercepted at least four shipments of cocaine and marijuana hidden in truckloads of vegetables and fruit, two of them in Bergen County. The total estimated street value of the drugs exceeds $175 million.
The seizures underscore what federal law enforcement officials say is a growing trend: Taking advantage of the vibrant border commerce with Mexico since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, drug trafficking organizations are moving illicit narcotics in shipments of produce.
Given the increased volume of trucks that enter the United States from Mexico, U.S. Customs officials at border checkpoints are spending less time inspecting loads of fruit and vegetables, lest they wither in the sweltering heat if unloaded and left out in the sun, investigators say. So hiding drugs among produce has become a method of choice for smugglers south of the border.
"It's practically impossible for them to pull over each and every produce truck," said Robert D. Mansaw, an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Houston office, which investigates narcotics smuggling in the eastern Rio Grande valley. "They know that any delay is going to cause problems as far as spoilage of the product.
"So drug traffickers are using legitimate freight such as fruit and vegetables to secrete their drugs and get them across the border," Mansaw said. "A lot of time the perishables go right through."
Once they've cleared Customs, trucks carrying drugs in fruit and vegetable loads usually head for a distribution warehouse near the border or continue on to metropolitan centers in the United States, he said. In New Jersey, three of the recent produce-related seizures were made by state troopers at rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike.
The turnpike is one of the principal arteries used by Mexican-based drug cartels to haul cocaine and marijuana to the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, where the drugs are distributed to wholesalers and then street dealers, federal law enforcement officials said.
In the most recent seizure, state troopers on patrol in Ridgefield last week became suspicious of a 1994 Freightliner tractor-trailer bearing Texas license plates that was parked at the Vince Lombardi Service Center Area on the turnpike, said John Hagerty, a state police spokesman.
Narcotics detectives interviewed a man believed to be the truck's driver and obtained consent from him to search the trailer, Hagerty said.
After finding the ton of marijuana in crates of rotting Spanish onions, the detectives charged the trucker, 30-year-old Erasto Herrera of Gardena, Calif., with possession of narcotics with the intent to distribute them, Hagerty said. State police estimated the street value of the marijuana at $15 million.
Troopers made another seizure at the same rest stop on Feb. 8, finding 1,900 pounds of marijuana and 1,870 pounds of cocaine hidden in boxes of rotting yellow peppers that were being moved by van to a Fairview warehouse. Authorities said the drugs were worth $100 million on the street.
On Jan. 25, 1999, troopers raided a warehouse off Route 3 in Secaucus, where they seized 2,640 pounds of cocaine worth an estimated $30 million that was hidden in frozen cauliflower. The vegetables were sitting on pallets that had been unloaded from a tractor-trailer that authorities said had traveled from Hidalgo, Texas, in the Rio Grande valley.
On Sept. 4, 1998, state troopers in southern New Jersey impounded a tractor-trailer that had been carrying 2,640 pounds of cocaine -- worth an estimated $24.4 million on the street -- hidden in crates of watermelon.
By slipping into the stream of NAFTA commerce, authorities say, drug traffickers have increased their chances of success.
Federal officials acknowledge that they cannot search every inch of each truck that comes across the border -- and there are more coming in every day. Since the trade agreement took effect in 1994, imports from Mexico have soared, rising from $27 billion to nearly $110 billion over the past decade.
Because of the trade pact, tariffs on certain Mexican fruits and vegetables are disappearing. Consequently, imports of Mexican produce have also increased. For example, the volume of bell peppers from Mexico rose 53 percent from 1993 to 1998 so that today nearly one-quarter of all bell peppers consumed in the United States reportedly were grown in Mexico.
"We try to not do damage to the produce, especially on hot days," said Maria P. Reba, field operations director for the U.S. Customs Service in south Texas. "Some of the produce trucks don't get looked at, because we can't look at every truck."