SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- The threat of illegal pesticides entering the United States has prompted a San Diego-based effort to stop it.
"These are highly toxic banned pesticides that were originally developed for chemical warfare," said Benjamin Carr, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigations Division.
"We've seen some pretty interesting events of smuggling," added Ernest Verina, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge with Homeland Security Investigations. "This is not just traditional smuggling where it's in the backseat and just failed to declare. There was also deep concealment [such as] quarter panels hidden in the purses, hidden in luggage."
Several agencies—including the EPA, HSI, and the U.S. Attorney's Office—are a part of the Border Pesticides Initiative group, formed in late 2019. Most of the chemicals made their way to illegal marijuana grows in the national forests.
"They were endangering wildlife, and they were endangering law enforcement officers who were working to eradicate the illegal marijuana grows," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Pierson.
Smugglers are often not thinking about health but instead profits, according to federal authorities. "You can buy a one-liter bottle in Mexico of these chemicals for about 10 dollars and sell it up here for somewhere from $130 to $250 for that same bottle," Pierson said.
The chemicals are cheaper and often more potent than what someone can buy in the United States.
One of the main pesticides federal authorities have focused on is carbofuran, often discovered in a highly concentrated form. Carr said one tablespoon of it could take down a full-size grown bear.
"It doesn't take very much because these pesticides are being smuggled across in one-liter bottles. That might seem small, but they're highly concentrated in a way that could treat up to one to five acres of land," Carr said.
Carr mentioned other chemicals, such as methamidophos, chlorpyrifos, and organophosphates--all illegal or highly regulated in the U.S.
"They disrupt the nervous system and can cause acute exposure problems of seizures, coma, and ultimately death," Carr said.
Since the formation of the Border Pesticide Initiative, roughly 50 people have been arrested in California. In one federal court case, investigators said Jose de Jesus Uribe had at least 60 bottles of Metaldane 600—bottles containing banned chemicals—in his vehicle. Prosecutors said his phone contained images of him with marijuana and stacks of cash. They said it appeared he was involved with illegal marijuana and was "supplying smuggled pesticides to others."
The act of smuggling goods can carry a severe penalty of up to 20 years in prison, but those caught with illegal pesticides often receive lesser sentences.
"Federal laws with respect to pesticides are only misdemeanors, so they carry different penalties from 30 days and custody to a year, depending on your status under the law," Pierson said. "That's what Congress has deemed appropriate, and so until the laws change, that is what is out there to enforce."
Uribe received a few days in prison and was ordered to pay $3,000 in restitution.
It's unclear exactly how many banned chemicals are making into the United States, but federal investigators hope they are making a dent with their increased training and focus.
"I think that if people were more aware of the dangers that pose to themselves and their family, they would decide I don't want this in my car. I don't want this in my house," Pierson said.
"Our primary job is to promote good commerce, good travel, financial security for the United States, and also keep out those things that would otherwise do us harm," Verina added.
Of the roughly 50 people charged under the Border Pesticide Initiative group's efforts, 14 were convicted of felonies, and 28 were convicted of misdemeanors. In all, they were ordered to pay more than $80,000 in restitution.