Customs Officials Watch For Creative Smugglers

The Customs officials at Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C. have pretty much seen it all. This holiday season, they'll be keeping an eye out for everything from live animals to cocaine-stuffed chicken.

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Despite the intense scrutiny at airports these days, there are still plenty of passengers who try to sneak in contraband.

Kavitha Cardoza found some customs officials at Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington whove pretty much seen it all.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The baggage carousel at Dulles is a busy place.

Officer KEVIN HOLMES (U.S. Customs and Border Protection): Up to 22,000 bags in the summer and maybe 10,000 in the winter.

CARDOZA: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer, Kevin Holmes, says that's 22,000 bags every day. And some of those bags don't just hold Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.

Officer HOLMES: The smugglers are very creative. If they can think it, they'll do it.

CARDOZA: Officer Ted Max Rose says just a few weeks ago, someone was apparently inspired by the TV show "Lost."

Officer TED MAX ROSE (U.S. Customs and Border Protection): We had some cocaine that was concealed inside two St. Jude statues.

CARDOZA: Isn't he the patron saint of lost causes?

Officer ROSE: It would be very appropriate then, because he was definitely a lost cause after we found it.

CARDOZA: Officers can't agree on which passenger has been the most memorable: The one woman who hid a live bird in her hair, or another who hid cocaine in her bra. Or perhaps it was the man who sauntered into the country with 60 pounds of raw beef at the height of the Mad Cow disease scare.

When it comes to sneaking stuff in, Officer Hachim Ndiaye says anything goes.

Officer HACHIM NDIAYE (U.S. Customs and Border Protection): A false bottom. The handle, they can put it in the wheels - everywhere you can imagine.

CARDOZA: When passengers are stopped, Holmes says officers have seen and heard it all. Excuses?

Officer HOLMES: A lot of times, passengers try to tell us that it's fish. Unfortunately it's very obvious when it comes in that it's actually bush meat, 'cause you can see the claws or the teeth. Sometimes it still has the head on it.

CARDOZA: Or as Officer Mathew Wellington says, denial.

Officer MATHEW WELLINGTON (U.S. Customs and Border Protection): Oh, you're not allowed to bring in Cuban cigars?

CARDOZA: And when all else fails: Outrage.

Officer WELLINGTON: No, ma'am. I'm sorry you're not allowed to bring this type of ham from this country. Well, thats just the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of.

CARDOZA: Last year, officers at Dulles seized 30,000 prohibited plant and animal products, 600 pests and 55 pounds of cocaine. And yes, that is counting the 60 grams they found inside a cooked chicken.

For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Washington.

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