Abuse and questionable behavior by TSA agents and customs officials hit the headlines more and more it seems. But, on the whole, you have to sympathize with what they do. They must see the entire spectrum of good, bad, and ugly, and maybe all of them even on a single day. Whenever there is money to be made or corners that can be cut, there will be people trying to slip items of all kinds past border security.
Drugs are probably the first that come to mind when you think of contraband. But, there's a long list of items that are sought after by various people for all sorts of devious purposes, from exotic animals to insects, human body parts, animal body parts, dangerous-looking fake weapons, bizarre food items, and much, much more.
How do they do it? The less creative smugglers use their own luggage -- which is likely why they made it to the news and this story. More imaginative crooks conceal all sorts of contraband inside their clothing, furniture, and more. Here's a look at some of the shocking, the bizarre, and the simply gross things that customs have to put up with.
In 2014, staff at Birmingham Airport in the UK seized a squash that measured more than 4 feet long and weighed at least 60 pounds from a shipment arriving from Asia. Along with the squash, the seized load included about 175 pounds of fish and 94,000 cigarettes illegally imported from Bangladesh. In three different shipments, customs staff found 2,000 pounds of betel leaves, which are commonly chewed or smoked as a mild stimulant in parts of Asia. In the same airport, in the same year, a Scottish poet by the name of Ian Blake found himself in trouble temporarily when airport staff mistook his haggis for Semtex explosive. Ian wrote a poem about the experience called "On Being Hauled Out Of The Line By Security At Birmingham Airport." A representative for the local city council told the press, "It is a bit of a rare find, as you can imagine we do get cigarettes a lot, but not a squash, especially not one of this size."
A German couple's luggage was seized at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport in 2012 on the way back home from a trip to South America. What customs officials found must have stayed in their nightmares for months: 200 live tarantulas. The poisonous spiders were joined by a creepy crawly assortment of bugs, including grasshoppers and millipedes. The couple had collected the insects on their trip to Peru. They had then placed the bugs in plastic containers and tubing, which they then hid in their clothing, and packed in their suitcases. Some of the tarantulas were actually rare species. There is apparently busy illegal traffic in exotic insects, which are eventually sold to museums or collectors around the world, including on eBay for tidy sums. They're also sometimes used in jewelry in some Asian countries. In March 2017, a Czech national was arrested in Australia after officials found 27 spiders, seven scorpions, and 4,192 other native Australian insects wrapped in plastic in his luggage. On eBay, some beetles and other insects can sell for hundreds of dollars.
A shipment of 67 giant African snails was intercepted en route from Nigeria to California. The live snails were packed into two picnic baskets that federal agents seized at LAX in July 2014. The snails weighed over 35 pounds and were on their way to San Dimas, California. The snails, also known as land snails, are considered a delicacy in some cuisines, where they are fried and eaten as a snack. The snails, however, can carry harmful parasites and can damage crops. They've been designated as a harmful creature by the US Department of Agriculture. The giant African snails can live up to 10 years and grow a whopping 8-inches long. Customs officials told the media they were used to finding one or two such snails concealed in clothing or baggage, but the seizure of 67 was unprecedented.
The illegal exotic animal trade is dangerous for a lot of reasons -- the threat to human health, cruelty to the animals themselves, threats to endangered species... the list goes on. But as long as there are bucks to be made, there will be smugglers looking to cash in. Birds are among the most common animals found by customs agents, as it turns out. In 2009, an Australian man tried to bring two pigeons into the country by smuggling them in his pants. In April of 2016, Vietnamese customs officials found 18 live birds stuffed into a man's pants. In 2011, authorities discovered more than 10 tiny hummingbirds wrapped up in pouches and sewn into the lining of a Dutch man's pants. The poor birds had not even been sedated. Luckily for them, officials in French Guiana noticed him acting suspiciously. The man, apparently, had been caught smuggling hummingbirds on other occasions. From lizards in underwear, snakes in socks, and tropical fish under skirts, crooks have found many creative -- and disgusting -- ways to smuggle and abuse animals.
Illegal drugs, of course, are one of the most common items seized by customs and border officials, and the border between Arizona and Mexico is a hotspot for contraband of all kinds. In February 2017, Border Patrol agents in Douglas, Arizona discovered a catapult that had been attached to the top of a border fence east of Tucson. Apparently, the agents noticed a group of people hanging around the border fence, these people running away when the agents approached. The catapult, used in ancient and medieval warfare, was a DIY affair made of tubing and heavy gauge springs, some parts welded together and other components tied together with rope. The audacious smugglers were able to use it to fling up to about 50 pounds of pot at a time over to the US side.
Tigers are beautiful and majestic, and pretty much the last place they belong is in a suitcase. In 2010, a woman was arrested at Bangkok International Airport after an X-ray scan of her luggage turned up a surprise. The 31-year-old woman apparently thought she could fool customs by loading a suitcase full of stuffed animals, and one two-month-old tiger cub. The ruse didn't work, though, and the X-ray operators rescued the tiger cub, which had been drugged. Incredibly, the woman used the old "someone asked me to carry this tiger through the airport for them" excuse, but it didn't fly. Apparently, she was on the way to sell it on the black market in Iran. Instead, she was arrested, and the tiger cub lived happily ever after in a wildlife conservation park.
Back in 2007, at London Stansted Airport, customs employees probably experienced extreme horror when they searched a passenger's bags and found human eyeballs staring back at them. The eyeballs, 10 in total, or 5 pairs, were found floating in a jam jar and were seized by officials. There are few details available on the story, which we're sure everyone involved was quick to try and forget. Human body parts in luggage are, sadly, not actually all that uncommon a find. In April 2016, a German man was arrested at Rome's Fiumicino airport after a human skull was discovered in his bags. The man, a university professor, said he had bought it at an open-air market.
In 2016, a woman was making her way through the usual security checkpoint at the Baltimore-Washington airport when TSA agents searched her carry-on luggage and confiscated her... shoes. Naturally, they were no ordinary shoes. These particular shoes sported gun-shaped stiletto heels, decorated with bullets along each side. Along with the ballistic footwear, the woman also had bracelets decorated with bullets. The woman was questioned but then let go. Now, she could have put the shoes and bracelets in her checked luggage, but the woman chose instead to leave them at the gate. TSA officials posted a pic of the gun shoes on social media with the caption "Friendly reminder from TSA: realistic replica firearms and ammunition are not permitted past TSA checkpoints."
A middle-aged college professor was caught with the severed head of a seal in his carry-on luggage at Boston's Logan Airport in 2016. Apparently, he had found a dead seal on the beach and cut off its head to bring along. Now, in case you have any plans for seal parts yourself, you should know that it's illegal to remove body parts or otherwise mess with the body of a dead mammal under federal law. It's also illegal to transport those contraband fish or wildlife bits. The biology prof was aware that a permit was actually needed but somehow thought he could pull off the subterfuge. His only excuse was that he wanted to use the head for educational purposes. The maximum penalty for the offenses is up to $20,000 in fines and up to a year in jail.
Customs officials are not often known for their kindly, understanding natures -- albeit with good reason. As a member of the general public, though, it's easier to forgive people for their ignorance of the law. It may not be so well known that it's not only illegal to bring firearms across international borders without a mountain of paperwork, but it's equally illegal to bring facsimiles that simply look like weapons or firearms. So, it didn't matter to customs officials at Dayton International Airport in May 2013, that what looked like a grenade was really a small grinder, (the size you would use to grind spices...or say, marijuana). The item was seized anyway. Some might say an official at Heathrow Airport in London in 2014 went a bit overboard when he seized the toy gun from a doll that looked like Woody from Toy Story. Officials refused to comment on the matter in the media.
TSA officials have shared their often shocking and bizarre experiences on social media, including blogs and a popular Instagram account. One week in 2012 was particularly memorable for its resulting cache of weaponry. The most impressive, surely, was the AT-4 Rocket Launcher found in a passenger's checked luggage at Latrobe Airport in Pennsylvania. The rocket launcher was expended, or no longer active, but was still described as "an eye-opener for our officers to say the least." It was, however, far from the only impressive and potentially deadly weapon of the week. Other notable seizures included four inert grenades -- one each at O'Hare, Dallas, Houston, and Juneau airports -- and 40 stun guns, including 26 in one carry-on bag seized at JFK in New York City.
Imagine being the customs agent on duty in 2012 at Cairo International Airport when you discover 420 pounds of cow brains. The discovery was made when inspectors checked out large freezer boxes that were being brought in by three travelers from Sudan. Why cow brains, you ask? Cow brains are considered a delicacy in Egypt, where they are deep fried and served with pita bread and a spicy sauce. Yum. Cow brains can cost up to $6 per pound in Egypt. In nearby Sudan, cow brains can be bought for a mere $1 per pound. Follow the money, in other words. The seizure was notable for its size, but it's hardly an unusual situation. Customs officials noted that it had been the fourth seizure of cow brains that week.
In 2002, a 17-year-old British teenager on the way to Manchester, England from Saudi Arabia caused a commotion at baggage collection when airport staff happened to notice a chameleon perched on her head scarf. Actually, what they noticed was a growing group of other passengers who were taking pictures of her colorful headgear. The teen had boarded the flight from Dubai without, apparently, anyone noticing the chameleon on her head. It's true that chameleons change color to match their environment, but still... Chameleons are on the list of endangered species, but the girl was able to buy one legally from a pet store in Saudi Arabia. The girl was not charged and was able to continue on with her visit to the UK. No word on what happened to the chameleon.
Back in March of 2009, a Chilean man was arrested after landing in Barcelona, Spain. The man had a broken leg, and as customs authorities discovered, the entire cast was made of cocaine. There is a spray that, when it touches cocaine, turns blue. Let's just say the 66-year-old man's cast lit up like the sky. In addition to the cast, the man was also carrying two beer cans stuffed with cocaine, two small stools that were hollowed out and carrying blow, and other illegal packets throughout his luggage totaling about 10 pounds. Officials suspected that he actually broke his leg on purpose in order to wear the cocaine cast. In 2013, two men from Panama flew into Barcelona, and authorities became suspicious at their nervous behavior. One of the men had only one leg, and customs officials eventually found more than two pounds of coke in his false limb.
This story goes beyond a mere customs incident into a kind of twilight zone. It begins with the seizure of about 180,000 pounds of chicken wings from the Netherlands, bound for Malaysia. The wings were seized at the Rajang Port in Sarawak, Malaysia in February 2017 because of the lack of an import permit. It was not clear who exactly the importer was, adding to the mystery. After confiscating the chicken wings, the Customs enforcement unit decided to bury the massive amount of wings at a disposal site. However, the disposal was noticed by area residents, who were soon digging out the wings to eat themselves and even to sell. We can thank social media for bringing the incident to light. Out of concern for public health, the cops were sent to man the site, and eventually, the chicken wings were sprayed and relocated to a permanent garbage site.
Sources: latimes.com; telegraph.co.uk; huffingtonpost.com