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Asset Forfeiture Laws Snare Poor Dishwasher

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The U.S. asset-forfeiture laws — designed to intercept proceeds from drug trafficking and prevent money laundering — have an illegal immigrant from Guatemala fighting the government for $59,000 he earned as a dishwasher in South Florida.

The St. Petersburg Times reported Oct. 28 that Pedro Zapeta, 39, was trying to take the earnings home to Guatemala after a decade of working illegally in the U.S. when airport security screeners spotted the cash in his luggage. For the past two years, Zapeta has been trying to recover the cash, which was seized because he failed to declare it to Customs agents.

Both the U.S. government and Zapeta want him to return to his home country. But the government has refused to return Zapeta's money, even though he produced records showing he earned the money as a dishwasher — not a drug dealer — and had taxes deducted from his paychecks.

“I'm not a criminal. I'm just a dishwasher,” Zapeta said. “I haven't been home for 11 years. I want to build a house for my mother and start a business.”

Supporters have raised $10,000 for Zapeta, and a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Zapeta could keep $10,000 of his earnings. But Zapeta has appealed the ruling. “I'm more than happy to go home, but not without my money,” Zapeta said. “I'll go back to Guatemala tomorrow if they give it back to me. It's all I have.”

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