McALLEN, Texas (CN) - Bus operator Turimex owes the federal government a $3.3 million fine for the 93 kilos of cocaine its drivers tried to smuggle into the United States, the Justice Department claims in court.
The United States sued Turimex on Wednesday in Federal Court, seeking to hold the company liable under the Tariff Act.
Turimex is a subsidiary of Grupo Senda, a Mexican company whose bus lines serve 13 Mexican states and 30 U.S. cities.
Customs and Border Protection agents caught two Turimex bus drivers trying to smuggle the cocaine into the United States at the Hidalgo Texas Port of Entry on July 17, 2009, according to the complaint.
The drivers had stashed the dope in "compartments directly above the entryway of the bus and above the driver's seat," the complaint states.
The Tariff Act of 1930 provides an out for failing to declare illegal narcotics to Customs agents upon entering the United States.
But that "narrow" liability exception applies only to ship captains and owners, the government says.
"If, among other requirements, neither the master nor the owner of the vessel knew, and could not have known, by the exercise of the highest degree of care and diligence, that such contraband was on board, then a penalty may be avoided. In this case, Turimex is not entitled to application of this narrow exception because, as the statute expressly provides, the exception applies only to vessels, not vehicles," the complaint states.
After the feds fined Turimex $3.36 million for the cocaine, a figure reached by applying the statutory penalty of $1,000 per ounce, the company claimed it was not liable since it knew nothing about its drivers' smuggling.
Sticking to a strict reading of the Tariff Act, the government refused to waive Turimex's liability, but did offer to reduce the fine first to 15 percent, then to 10 percent, of the original amount.
Turimex was unwilling to compromise so the government is suing it for the entire $3.36 million.
A kilo of cocaine can fetch up to $27,000 in the United States, according to Stratfor, an Austin-based intelligence firm.