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Mexican family says US auctioned off van with cocaine inside, got teens arrested

Julio Cesar Moreno in a photo provided by family friends.
Julio Cesar Moreno in a photo provided by family friends.AP
Sergio Alejandro Torres in a photo provided by his family.
Sergio Alejandro Torres in a photo provided by his family.AP

MEXICO CITY -- A Mexican family says that a van bought at a U.S. government auction came with an unwanted extra: an undiscovered package of cocaine beneath the dashboard.

Sergio Torres Duarte, 18, and his 19-year-old friend Julio Cesar Moreno were driving to a soccer match in November when they stopped at a routine police highway checkpoint near the Pacific Coast resort city of Mazatlan. They say they were stunned when officers discovered a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine beneath the dashboard of their blue 2004 Toyota Sienna. And they have been in jail fighting drug trafficking charges ever since.

Torres Duarte's father, also named Sergio Torres, says he bought the van for $3,900 through a friend at a Customs and Border Protection auction in February 2012 in McAllen, Texas.

After his son's arrest, Torres said this week, he began investigating and found that the van had been confiscated after U.S. customs agents had found five bundles of cocaine while inspecting the car at the international bridge in Pharr, Texas, in October 2011. Every brick of the drug had the word "Good" written with a black marker — just like the one seized by Mexican police, the father said.

U.S. officials acknowledge they might have missed part of the drug.

"Torres Duarte could have had the cocaine without knowing when he was arrested driving the car in Mexico," said a letter written to Mexican prosecutors by the U.S. Department of Justice attache in Mexico City, Tom Radcliff. Torres showed a copy of the letter to The Associated Press.

Julio Cesar Moreno in a photo provided by family friends.
Julio Cesar Moreno in a photo provided by family friends.AP

The Department of Justice declined to comment, though the spokesman for the customs agency in McAllen, Phil Barrera, said authorities have been investigating since the family began complaining.

It's not the first time people have been caught accidentally with drugs.

In 2002, Mexican soldiers arrested two men after finding 22 packages of marijuana in a secret compartment of their SUV, also bought at a government auction. An appeals court finally threw out their five-year sentence after ruling the drugs had been hidden since a previous drug bust.

Officials at the federal court office in Mazatlan said the law bars comment on an ongoing case, but Torres said prosecutors are asking for more time to present their case, despite documents and photos showing that the drug seized from the boys is identical to that seized in 2011 at the border.

"We are so angry. We have all of the proof. What else do they want?" Torres said.

Torres said the arrest prevented the youths from graduating from high school this summer with the rest of their classmates.

"They are completely depressed, tired, desperate and anxious," he said.