Car for sale: one careless owner

When Adrian Rodriguez heard a rattling noise in the 1991 Volkswagen Passat he had bought at a US Customs auction, he hoped to fix it cheaply by taking it to his mechanic in Tijuana, Mexico. But hidden under the back seat, the mechanic found 33lb of marijuana. Police were called and Mr Rodriguez was put in a Tijuana jail, only being freed a month later.

The experience has put Mr Rodriguez, a social worker, in the middle of a campaign to overhaul how American authorities inspect the vehicles seized at border crossings and in drug busts which they subsequently sell at auction.

US Customs, which auctions about 5,000 vehicles a year, suspended sales nationwide last month and promised new inspections, requiring that dogs search every vehicle when seized and again when put up for sale, and submitting nearly all to X-rays.

Several Mexicans are suing the US Treasury, which oversees Customs, for being jailed after unwittingly buying drug-laden cars. One is Jose Aguado Cervantes, who bought a Buick Century at an auction in July 1999. Three months later he was stopped and 119lb of marijuana was found hidden in the car. The 68-year-old pensioner spent three months in a San Diego jail.

Last year, Francisco Javier Rivera and Alfonso Calderon were found with 30lb of marijuana in a Nissan Pathfinder that Mr Rivera had bought in September 2001 from Customs. The men spent nearly a year in prison before a Mexican appeals court overturned their convictions.

And staff at a San Diego firm that runs auctions for the US Marshals Service have found drugs at least four times in recent years.