A produce importer in Pennsylvania has been sentenced to 13 years in prison for smuggling cocaine inside boxes of hot peppers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The man, Humberto Baez, 52, based in Lancaster, was sentenced Thursday for conspiring to import and distribute cocaine and for possessing with intent to distribute cocaine, according to a DEA statement.
Baez was convicted in February 2019.
"Concealing drug shipments with produce is one way drug traffickers try to elude law enforcement. This cat and mouse game evolves over time resulting in law enforcement recovering drugs in various places; such as inside coconuts, wheelchairs, animals, people, tombstones, etc. just to name a few," DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan said in the statement.
Baez's smuggling took place from August 2016 to March 2018, the DEA said. Baez and others hid the drugs inside shipping containers bound for the U.S. from the Dominican Republic.
At first, Baez and his co-conspirators planned two "dry run" shipments, which shipped only produce, to look like a legitimate produce seller.
When a third shipment containing 16 kilograms of cocaine, which had been "concealed in the flaps of cardboard boxes containing chili peppers," arrived in Miami in late February 2018, Baez told his co-conspirators that "ripe tomatoes" would be transported by truck to Baez's warehouse in Pennsylvania, the DEA said in its statement.
"Ripe tomatoes" was Baez's code phrase for cocaine, the DEA said.
On March 1, 2018, law enforcement searched the containers and found and seized the smuggled cocaine, the DEA said.
"Today's sentence demonstrates that this Office and its law enforcement partners are committed to stopping the flow of dangerous drugs into this country and to bringing drug traffickers like Baez to justice," Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said.