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Article updated: 3/19/2013 6:07 PM

Customs drug dog hits on opium packages near O'Hare

By Sara Hooker

A drug dog checking shipments at the International Mail Facility near O'Hare International Airport hit on packages Monday afternoon containing more than 30 pounds of opium-soaked materials valued at almost $500,000.

The 8-year-old canine, Shadow, a Belgian Malinois, alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to four different shipments from Laos destined for Wisconsin and Minnesota.

While border protection officers often run across drug shipments, they're usually not of this magnitude, said Brian Bell, chief CBP officer.

"We see them regularly. We just don't see them in these quantities," Bell said. "And we don't have (Shadow) hit on four different shipments all in a row like this."

The first package, invoiced as Hmong dresses, actually contained 38 pieces of decorative cloth soaked in opium. The fabric weighed just over 15 pounds and is valued at more than $238,000.

Another package contained 10 pieces of fabric just under 5 pounds, valued at almost $77,000.

Two other packages labeled traditional medicines contained sticks and leaves soaked in opium and were valued at almost $98,000 and $77,000.

Opium is considered a traditional medicine within the Laotian community. The cloths, sticks and leaves would be boiled in water, leaving behind an opium paste that could then be smoked.

"It's possible that this was going to somebody who wanted to use it for its traditional reasons, but it's illegal in the United States, therefore, we're responsible for preventing it from coming in," Bell said.

The CBP's investigative unit will continue looking into the packages' final destinations.

In addition to drug canines, the CBP officers work alongside canines who sniff out illegal agricultural items that could hurt the economy, weapon canines who detect explosives and guns, and currency detection dogs that can sniff out large quantities of undeclared money.

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