CHICAGO (CBS) — Millions of dollars in online purchases have been seized by federal agents and will soon be destroyed.
Boxes of illegal Cuban cigars – Cohiba, Bolivar, Romeo y Julieta, among other brands — have been discovered on planes at O’Hare International Airport.
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CBS 2’s Dave Savini took a tour of the confiscated goods with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Bell, who says the quantity of contraband has never been bigger.
“I have never, ever seen anything like this in my career,” said Bell.
He says officers would typically seize about 10 boxes a week from airline passenger planes. However, during the last two weeks of November, customs agents in Chicago seized more than 100,000 illegal cigars worth millions of dollars. Extra patrols of federal officers had to be assigned to keep up with the contraband.
Bell says it’s a direct result of a terrorism crackdown.
In November, printer cartridges laced with explosives were found in the belly of an airplane bound for the U.S. from Yemen. Packages were addressed to synagogues in Chicago.
So, shipping rules were changed to protect passenger planes. Companies can no longer ship packages on them weighing more than 16 ounces aboard passenger planes. Heavier packages have to be shipped solely on cargo planes.
Foreign cigar sellers that in the past would sneak in illegal cigars on hundreds of different passenger flights are now stuck shipping in bulk on cargo planes, making the packages easier to find.
The boxes of seized cigars were primarily shipped from Switzerland and were headed to buyers in Oak Brook, Naperville, Schaumberg, West Chicago and Flossmoor and other communities. Many of these could have been bought for holiday gifts.
But those folks are now out of luck, says Bell.
“These are going to be seized and then destroyed … incinerated,” he said.
Bell acknowledges that there are cigar lovers who may find this upsetting.
“I’m sure there are, and I feel for them, but it is what it is,” he said.
Customs agents could have arrested the local buyers for violating the Trading With The Enemies Act, but officials say they have more important cases to worry about. Buyers are still being punished, though; they are out their money and cigars.