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Seized Vietnam-Bound Goods May Be Forfeited to U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Gold, stereos and electronics equipment seized in a recent crackdown on illegal shipments to Vietnam will probably be forfeited to the U.S. government, a Customs Service official said Tuesday.

Only humanitarian items--food, medicines and clothing valued at $400 or less--will be allowed to go to recipients in the Communist nation, according to John Heinrich, Customs Service district director. Many of the items found in Oct. 14 and Saturday inspections of Air France storage areas at Los Angeles International Airport were destined, directly or indirectly, for the Vietnamese black market, Heinrich said.

“Our intent was not only to punish violators but to send a message to those who might violate export laws,” he said. “Typically, our emphasis is on more sophisticated export violations, like advanced technology or computer equipment to Communist countries. Occasionally we look at other areas--like small shipments to Vietnam or North Korea--because of the high potential for violation of trade sanctions.”

The airline was targeted because of “intelligence reports,” but also because it is the largest shipper out of Southern California to Vietnam, according to Heinrich. Items seized in the raids included 4 kilograms gold, videocassette recorders, a portable computer, clothing and cosmetics, according to Customs Department records.

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About 90 packages weighing a total of 30,000 pounds were detained, he said. There have been similar inspections of other carriers that ship to Vietnam, including Air Canada, but “no other seizures have come near the size of these,” Heinrich added.

Leaders of the Indochinese community in Westminster and Garden Grove said the federal action came without warning after years of lax enforcement of a U.S. trade embargo against all shipments, except humanitarian goods, to Vietnam. Gifts from the relatives in the U.S.--often peddled on the black market to bring in cash--can mean the difference between starvation and survival for thousands in Vietnam, they said.

“This is the first time a clear signal came from the federal government,” said Do Ngoc Yen, publisher of Nguoi Viet Daily, a Vietnamese-language newspaper based in Garden Grove. “The federal regulation had not been enforced, and so it was abused by Vietnamese here, who sent as much as possible each time, and by the Communists, who collect tariff on the shipments in Vietnam.”

Virtually all Vietnamese residents here send goods back home, said Tony Lam, owner of Vien Dong restaurant in Garden Grove and a vice president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

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“Nobody should go beyond what the law allows, but on the other hand, it is the only means to help relatives,” Lam said. “We have no choice. Even with help, it is hard for the people in Vietnam to survive. You might consider it black market, but what can they do?”


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