Cocaine concealed in cheese wheels seized at Presidio Port of Entry

PRESIDIO — Last Thursday, Customs and Border Protection officials intercepted a smuggler attempting to bring cocaine into the United States by concealing the drug in wheels of cheese. 17.8 pounds of the narcotic was recovered over the course of the search. 

Before the search was initiated, a 22-year-old United States citizen was pulled over for secondary inspection after declaring four wheels of cheese. The cheese was run through an X-ray scanner which revealed “anomalies,” per a Customs and Border Protection press release

Presidio Port Director Daniel Mercado said that concealing narcotics inside of everyday items wasn’t a new smuggling tactic. “The thorough and extensive inspections performed by CBP officers stopped this unusual drug load from reaching its intended destination,” he said. 

Big Bend Sector Spokesperson Roger Maier was less cavalier about the seizure. “I have been in my post for 30-plus years and do not recall a smuggling event involving drugs hidden in cheese before,” he said.

A more common occurrence is the smuggling of unauthorized agricultural products into the United States, rather than using those products to conceal other materials. In October of 2022, 484 pounds of bologna and 285 pounds of cheese were intercepted at a port of entry in El Paso. 

Crossing cheese in and of itself isn’t a crime — it’s the quantity that matters. In 2023, two high-profile cheese busts at ports of entry in New Mexico and Arizona led authorities to clarify that only “personal use” amounts of cheese may enter the United States, limited to around 10 pounds. 

Maier explained that in this case, not only were the seized drugs sampled and destroyed — but the cheese had to be eliminated as well via incineration and industrial waste disposal. “It would be unfit/unsafe for consumption following an episode like the most recent one,” he said. 

2023 has been an unusually heavy year for cocaine trafficking, with a historic spike of over 29,000 pounds of cocaine seized in February 2023 alone. 

A report from the United Nations attributes the uptick of seizures — in part — to the easing of border crossing restrictions after the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also estimates that around 30% of the world’s cocaine users are North American, explaining why such large quantities of the drug are seized at ports of entry into the United States. 

The large number of seizures may also be due to increased efforts on the federal level to stem the flow of fentanyl and other narcotics into the United States. In March, the Biden Administration announced the launch of Operation Blue Lotus, aimed at increasing the number of inspections along the border. “Operation Blue Lotus is an example of how DHS surges resources and increases efficiency, prioritizing smart border security solutions, and working with federal, state, tribal and local partners,” reads a Department of Homeland Security press release written in support of the program.