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San Benito sisters sentenced to 2 years for attempting to smuggle almost $400,000

BROWNSVILLE, Texas - Two sisters from San Benito, Texas, were each sentenced to two years in prison on Monday for their role in evading a currency reporting requirement when they attempted to smuggle almost $400,000 through the Los Indio International Bridge in Brownsville. The sentence was announced by U.S. Attorney Jose Angel Moreno, Southern District of Texas. The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and assisted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Zu-Haidy Berenice Torres, 31, and Karla Judith Torres, 25, were each sentenced to 24 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen for evading the reporting requirement for exporting more than $10,000. Judge Hanen also imposed a three-year-term of supervised release for each sister, and each must also perform 100 hours of community service during the first two years.

Both sisters pleaded guilty to the charges on Jan. 7.

The investigation revealed that on Aug. 12, 2009, Karla Judith Torres, driving a Ford Expedition with her sister Zu-Haidy riding as a passenger, approached the southbound inspection lanes at the Los Indios International Bridge in Brownsville. The sisters, appearing nervous, were referred by CBP officers to secondary inspection.  They were then asked to declare weapons and/or money in excess of $10,000. They denied possessing any weapons, currency or other monetary instrument in excess of $10,000; and they did not complete the appropriate customs forms for taking currency in excess of $10,000 outside the country.

When CBP officers searched their purses, they discovered five packages of currency. Zu-Haidy then informed agents that more currency was hidden under the rear seat of the vehicle. Nine more packages were found under the rear seat, for a total of 14 packages of U.S. currency, which contained $399,113.

Karla Torres told agents that an individual in Mexico she only knew as "Gordo" paid her $5,000 to go to Houston, pick up the money, conceal it, and then smuggle it into Mexico. Following instructions, she traveled to Houston and exited off highway 59 where she drove into the Wal-Mart parking lot. There she met with an unknown Hispanic individual who gave her a black briefcase containing the money. Karla then drove to the Rio Grande Valley. Then she asked her sister, Zu-Haidy, to help her smuggle the money into Mexico. The sisters then concealed the currency in the vehicle and in the lining of their purses. Zu-Haidy told agents she believed the money was from drug proceeds.

The court permitted both sisters to remain on bond and ordered them to surrender themselves on May 13 to begin serving their sentence. The court also ordered the sisters to forfeit to the United States the $399,133 that was seized.

The investigation leading to the charges and ultimately the conviction of both women was initiated by CBP and investigated by ICE agents.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Angel Castro, Southern District of Texas prosecuted this case.