January 25, 2012 / 3:35 AM / 8 years ago

Bus passengers get prison in Texas cash smuggling case

McALLEN, Texas (Reuters) - A federal judge sentenced a busload of passengers to prison terms of up to three years for their role in a foiled smuggling operation to ferry more than $3.1 million in cash into Mexico, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said on Tuesday.

The sentences came after federal agents stopped a southbound commercial bus at the Hidalgo, Texas international bridge, about 240 miles south of San Antonio, in September 2010.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers searched 17 pieces of luggage on the bus and found cash stuffed inside deflated Coleman air mattresses packed in each bag, a criminal complaint said.

Agents seized $3.19 million in cash from the bags and arrested all 13 passengers aboard the bus.

The passengers all admitted to their role in the smuggling ring, saying they were recruited to move the cash into Mexico. They expected to be paid as much as $8,000 to courier the currency across the border.

All but one of the convicted passengers had been living in and around Atlanta when they were recruited to transport the bags, prosecutors said. There was no immediate word on what the money was to be used for.

A federal judge handed down sentences that ranged from time served to three years in federal prison. Seven Mexican nationals convicted in the scheme face deportation. One passenger, Jonathan Nathan Gaona, 21, of Yadkinville, North Carolina, failed to appear for sentencing and was a fugitive.

Beyond firearms and weapons from the United States that fall into Mexican drug cartels’ hands, federal authorities in recent years say they have stepped up efforts to stem the flow f cash sometimes used to fund narcotics trafficking operations.

Writing by Jared Taylor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston

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