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EXCLUSIVE: U.S. Customs’ Battle Against JFK Airport Contraband

You Name It, Travelers Try To Smuggle It -- Different Drugs, Food, Live Birds
U.S. Customs and Border Protection

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (CBS 2) — It’s a never-ending battle at our international airports — smugglers, trying to outwit Customs and Border Protection officers.

They move contraband in everything from the hems of dresses to packages of hair crème.

Now, as CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reportedly exclusively on Tuesday, Customs is fighting back.

Every plane that lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport is another chance for customs to catch a smuggler.

“We’re good at the game, too. We play it well,” Customs and Border Protection Officer Joe Finn said.

From sandals with something extra in the sole to raw meat hidden in a suitcase, the explanations are all over the place.

“They say, ‘Oh, I forgot.’  There’s all kinds of excuses!” Officer Enid Carruth said.

CBS 2’s Aiello got exclusive behind-the-scenes access at JFK to the Customs and Border Protection officers who spot — and stop — smuggling.

“We encounter all types of different, good concealments, tricky concealments, liars,” Officer Finn said.

In luggage and checked packages officers have found candy bars and hair crème packages that contain heroin and plastic cats concealing opium.

“We’ve seen cocaine stuffed in buttons,” Officer Finn said.

The search for smuggled goods begins soon after landing — with random checks by a mobile X-ray unit team peeking into passengers’ luggage. There are visits from drug-sniffing dogs and contraband checks inside aircraft electrical panels, as well as other potential hiding places.

“Those guys are not only Customs and Border Protection officers, they’re also FAA-certified mechanics,” Officer Anthony Campos said.

Planes bring tons of cargo to JFK as well, including lots of fruits and vegetables from the Caribbean – like a particular plantain that wasn’t a plantain. It was made of Fiberglas and concealed cocaine, officials said.

Inside the terminal, customs officers look for drug couriers who ingest pellets of narcotics.

“Gotta use your experience, your skills at detecting behavior, nervous behavior, as well as your gut instinct,” Officer Finn said.

Travelers also encounter the “Beagle brigade” sniffing for banned food products and grains that may have invasive pests such as the destructive Khapra beetle.

Officer Carruth said a surprising number of travelers try to smuggle live birds in cardboard tubes hidden under their clothes.

“People think they’re clever, but they’re not so clever,” Officer Carruth said.

Confiscated food goes to the “grinding room,” much to travelers’ dismay.

“They really get livid and they cry, they really cry,” Officer Carruth said.

It’s an endless effort to keep out the contraband travelers try to bring in.

While looking for contraband, customs officers are also on the anti-terror frontline, searching for explosives and other threats.

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