WASHINGTON — U.S. authorities said Tuesday they will share $20.5 million in forfeited assets with their Hong Kong counterparts that were seized as part of what is believed to be the largest commercial fraud scheme and investigation involving “smuggled” Chinese apparel dating back to 2000.
The action is the culmination of a probe originally launched by the former U.S. Customs Service in 2000 into a multinational criminal organization that smuggled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Chinese-made apparel into the U.S. through the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division, federal agents in the U.S. — coordinating with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region — turned up what they called a smuggling scheme involving more than 7,000 shipping containers of apparel worth more than $600 million that were illegally shipped into the U.S. The Customs Service was incorporated into ICE following the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
According to authorities, the criminal organization, based in China, Hong Kong and the U.S., provided fake documents to customs brokers falsely stating the Chinese-made garments were being sold to companies in Mexico, when the apparel was actually delivered to buyers throughout the U.S.
Authorities said the operatives were seeking to avoid paying import duties that resulted in an estimated loss of $60 million in U.S. customs revenue alone.
“This payout has been a long time coming, but it’s a testament to the perseverance of the personnel on the two continents who were involved in dismantling this scheme,” said Joseph Macias, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. “Commerce smuggling is a multibillion-dollar global industry that robs governments of vital revenues and undermines our economy.”
Anne Maricich, acting director of Custom and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations in Los Angeles, said, “All attempts to circumvent U.S. importation revenues are taken very seriously. By collaborating and pooling resources trans-nationally with law enforcement partners in a massive undertaking such as this, our borders extend to further stop culprits and recover substantial monetary losses.”
In addition to the interdiction of more than 200 cargo containers of apparel, the investigation led to the seizure of a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Commerce, Calif., as well other business and residential locations in Los Angeles and Laredo, Tex.
Investigators also seized or obtained restraining orders against two dozen bank accounts in the U.S. and Hong Kong.
To date, five people allegedly involved in the criminal organization, including the owner of a Los Angeles-area trucking company, have been federally charged in connection with the case.
Armando Salcedo, 53, owner of Friends Global Logistics trucking company, pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false customs declarations and smuggling. In addition to receiving and serving an 18-month prison term, Salcedo forfeited nearly $5 million in personal property and other assets to the federal government, including his Downey residence and the City of Commerce warehouse. The remaining four defendants remain at large and are considered fugitives.