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14 people charged with conspiracy to smuggle $3.1 million in cash into Mexico

McALLEN, Texas - Fourteen passengers aboard a tour bus bound for Mexico have been arrested and charged for knowingly conspiring to evade currency transaction reporting requirements by concealing in luggage $3.1 million in U.S. currency. U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas José Angel Moreno announced the arrest and charges Wednesday along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Alan Bersin.

"This seizure puts smugglers on notice," said Morton. "ICE and CBP are working shoulder to shoulder to deny criminal organizations money they use to further their illicit activities and threaten public safety."

Fourteen passengers aboard a tour bus - seven U.S. citizens and seven Mexican nationals - were arrested on Sunday by CBP officers at the Hidalgo, Texas, port of entry after an intensive inspection of the tour bus resulted in discovery 17 pieces of luggage, each containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. currency.  The cash was discovered wrapped in deflated air mattresses in all the luggage pieces. After further investigation by ICE Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) agents, a criminal complaint was filed Sept. 29 in McAllen charging all 14 with conspiracy to knowingly conceal more than $10,000 in currency in an attempt to transport the currency to Mexico while evading currency-reporting requirements or bulk cash smuggling. The currency totaling $3.1 million in cash was seized by CBP officers.

"This seizure of $3.1 million in undeclared currency and 14 arrests, the largest currency seizure by CBP in Fiscal Year 2010, is a magnificent achievement and serves as a validation of our enhanced outbound enforcement effort, which includes not only CBP officers and agents, but also ICE Homeland Security Investigations special agents," said Bersin.

The following fourteen passengers were arrested Monday: seven U.S. citizens: Bianca Tapia-Pineda, 20; Jobanni Hernandez, 19; Gabriella Hernandez, 18; Alejandro Camacho, 22; Elizabeth Cornejo, 21; Leticia Urieta-Aguirre, 20 and Jonathan Nathan Gaona, 20. The remaining seven passengers were identified as Mexican nationals: Rene Fernando Espinoza-Borjas, 46; Maria Urieta, 48; Marcial Santana-Aleman, 47; Pedro Sanchez Aviles, 44; Jacinto Magadan Cuevas, 40; Margarita Patricia Jones, 50 and Irma Echeverria-Vega, 51.

All fourteen individuals made their initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter E. Ormsby in McAllen Tuesday and have been ordered temporarily detained pending detention hearings scheduled for Oct. 1.

A charge of conspiracy to smuggle bulk currency out of the United States carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a fine up to $250,000 and a term of supervised release.

It is not a crime to carry more than $10,000; but it is a federal offense not to declare currency or monetary instruments totaling more than $10,000 or more to a CBP officer upon entry into or exit from the United States.  It is also a crime to conceal money with the intent to evade reporting requirements. Failure to declare the currency may result in seizure of the currency and/or arrest. An individual may petition for the return of the currency seized by CBP officers, but the petitioner must prove that the source and intended use of the currency was legitimate.