US, Hong Kong bust huge clothing smuggling operation

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The US and Hong Kong authorities have smashed a massive operation smuggling Chinese-made clothing, believed to be the largest such find ever uncovered on the US West Coast.

The elaborate scheme involved more than US$600 million (S$812 million) worth of Chinese-made apparel being illegally imported into the United States under the guise that the merchandise was destined to companies in Mexico, when in fact it was delivered to buyers throughout the US.

The multinational operation was aimed at avoiding US import duties and quotas, officials said.

An investigation launched by the US and Hong Kong governments in 2000 revealed that more than 7,000 shipping containers of clothing had been imported into the United States as a result of the smuggling ring, whose operatives were based in China, Hong Kong and the US.

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said Tuesday that investigators believe the scheme led to more than US$60 million in lost customs revenue.

The US and Hong Kong governments will share out US$20.5 million in forfeited assets seized as part of the probe.

"This payout has been a long time coming, but it's a testament to the perseverance of the personnel on two continents who were involved in dismantling this scheme," said Mr Joseph Macias, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office of Home Security Investigations.

"Commercial smuggling is a multibillion-dollar global industry that robs governments of vital revenues and undermines our economy."

Five people, including the owner of a Los Angeles area trucking company, have been charged in the case.

Armando Salcedo, 53, owner of Friends Global Logistics trucking company, pleaded guilty in 2008 to smuggling charges and making false customs declarations and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

The remaining four defendants fled and remain at large, the authorities said.