More than two years ago, Pedro Zapeta tried to board a plane home to Guatemala from the United States. He carried a small blue duffel bag filled with what he says were his savings from seven years of working as a dishwasher in Marin County, California: $59,000 in cash. He didn’t declare the money; he says he didn’t know he was required to do so and couldn’t read the signs at the gate. When U.S. security officials spotted his undeclared dough, they confiscated it but let Zapeta go.
At first, Zapeta was accused of being a courier for a drug deal. Prosecutors claimed the cash was bundled in several manila envelopes, just like drug money. But prosecutors dropped the accusations after no drug residue was found on the bills and Zapeta produced letters and pay stubs from his years in the United States. One revealing detail: Zapeta was attempting to board the plane without a passport, which he didn’t know he needed—hardly the behavior of a professional drug courier.
Instead of apologizing and sending Zapeta home to realize his dream of starting a business with his earnings, U.S. District Judge James Cohn declared that Zapeta was free to leave but could take just $10,000 (the legal limit for undeclared cash) with him; the rest of the money was forfeit. Zapeta appealed the decision, but at press time he was facing imminent deportation with a minimum of several months left on his case. Zapeta entered the country illegally, a misdemeanor, but otherwise seems to have led a blameless existence. He says he managed to save so much because he had no girlfriends and because his only entertainment was Spanish-language TV and soccer games in a local park.
People from around the country have sent Zapeta donations totaling $15,000. According to the Palm Beach Post, one check came with a note. “We are disappointed in our own government for having taken your money,” wrote James and Julia Rukin of Lake Worth, Florida. “The government did the wrong thing.”