Agents seize $1.6 million in suspected drug profits

MIAMI -- Federal agents used cars to block a taxiing plane from taking-off and seized $1.6 million in suspected drug dealing profits being snuck out of the country by three Colombians, officials said.

A U.S. Customs spokesman said it was the 'largest seizure of currency ever made by federal authorities in the southeast' and exceeded the previous record total by about $100,000.


However, it was well short of the more than $3 million seized on the Pacific Coast about 18 months ago, the spokesman said.

Customs officials said they suspect the money -- seized at the Opa-Locka Airport Sunday -- were the profits from Florida narcotics deals.

Officials said U.S. Customs and Internal Revenue Service agents had been condicting round-the-clock surveillance on two aircraft at the airport as part of 'Operation Greenback' -- a government crackdown of smuggling and laundering operations involving drug profit money.

As one of the small planes taxied down the airport runway for takeoff, five law enforcement cars rushed in its path and blocked the aircraft, officials said.

The three Colombian men onboard surrendered without resistance and were arrested, officials said. Also arrested was a Miami man who came to see them depart.

Officials said duffel bags loaded aboard the plane were filled with stacks of $50 and $100 bills.

Two planes -- a Piper Navajo registered in Colombia and a Beach Queen Air -- were seized along with the money.

Customs spokesman Jim Dingfelder said the Piper, outfitted with 'complete and expensive avionics' equipment, was worth $450,000 and the Beech Queen Air was valued at up to $150,000.

Those arrested were identified as Jaime Murcia, 28, Leon Arenas, 36, and Eddie Perez, 37, all of Colombia, and Rafael Benitez, 50, of Miami.

The four were charged with failure to report movement out of the U.S. of money in excess of $5,000. They were scheduled for an appearance today before a U.S. Magistrate in Miami.

If convicted, the four could be sentenced to one year in prison and or fined $1,000. If the currency can be tied to commission of other cries, the maximum sentence could be 5 years in prison and or a $500,000 fine.

An investigation into the men's activities had been going on for three months and Dingfelder said for the past week agents in the airport control tower kept the aircraft under 24-hour surveillance.

Regional Customs Director William Rosenblatt said, 'We believe the money came from the sale of drugs.'

It was the second major currency seizure by Customs inspectors in Miami in less than four months. Last August a Colombian woman was arrested at Miami International airport with $1.5 million in currency.

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