The forbidden fruit of a foreign market car has tempted domestic importers and buyers alike since the gray market wound down in the 1980s. Illicit deals happen, and not just to bring vehicles into the United States. On Tuesday, officials from the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced they had seized more than 80 new vehicles bound for Venezuela from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The total value of the haul, which included luxury cars like a Lexus LX 570 and a Mercedes-AMG C63 S, was around $3 million.
First off, these cars weren’t stolen. They appear to have been legitimately paid for—a number even sported the factory ToyotaCare warranty stickers on the rear windows. At first glance, they simply appeared to be on their way out of the country, but look closer and the problems start to unfold. As it turns out, the vehicles seized were headed to Venezuela, a country with several businesses and individuals under the current regime that are facing sanctions by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
“These cars are going down to kleptocrats like [Raul] Gorrin and his associates to live their billionaire lifestyles while the people of Venezuela are starving to death,” said Special Agent Anthony Salisbury, per the Miami Herald. “You can’t get your hands on vehicles like these down there.”
In total, HSI officials noted that the value of the vehicles were estimated between $2.8 and $3.2 million. The cache included high-end automobiles—AMG G 63, Lexus LX 570, Range Rover, and Jaguar F-Type to name just a few—but it was also full of everyday commuters and entry-level passenger cars like Toyota Corollas, Tacomas, Tundras, and 4Runners. As it turns out, even the most basic cars can turn a pretty profit in the South American country.
Most vehicles appeared to be legitimate, but after the U.S. Customs and Border Protection began to open up containers, they found vehicles outfitted with defaced VIN numbers and even law enforcement-grade light bars and strobes.
While no individuals have been formally charged in relation to the vehicle seizure, HSI believes that well-known billionaire and accused money launderer Raul Gorrin is behind what is being described as “one of the biggest car-smuggling rackets” in Florida.
Special Agent Salisbury that this week’s findings are merely a drop in the bucket. In actuality, there’s no telling just how many cars slipped under the radar before information from HSI’s office in Bogota, Colombia tipped off local authorities of the straw purchases. Salisbury hopes that this will also tip-off local dealerships that some of the potential all-cash transactions could be money laundering in disguise.