Marijuana shipment disguised as spare tires in new cars - US officials

July 17 (Reuters) - About $1 million worth of smuggled marijuana was discovered last week in the spare tire compartments of newly assembled Ford Fusion sedans imported into the United States from Mexico, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The smuggling was uncovered on Wednesday when workers at a Ford dealer in Kent, Ohio found the marijuana in a new Fusion, said Major Dale Kelly of the Portage County Sheriff's Office by phone.

In all, 15 Mexican-made Ford cars, each packed with marijuana instead of a spare tire, made it to Ohio by rail, the Drug Enforcement Agency said. The sheriff's office said that the shipment crossed over the Mexican border in Arizona.

None of the cars, each packed with 32 pounds (14.5 kg) of marijuana, made it to consumers, Balzano said.

The marijuana was likely supposed to be collected at the rail station or in transit, Bob Balzano, resident agent-in-charge of the DEA in Youngstown, Ohio, said by phone.

After reaching Ohio by rail, nine of the 15 cars were then taken by truck to auto dealerships in Ohio and one went to a dealer in Pennsylvania, Balzano said. Five other cars never left the rail yard in Lordstown, Ohio.

Of the 15 cars, 14 were Ford Fusion sedans and one was a Lincoln MKZ sedan, Balzano said.

The marijuana was tightly packed into crescents, so that when two halves were put together, they created a circular shape like a tire.

Ford Motor Co spokeswoman Kelli Felker said the U.S. automaker was working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Customs. "We have confirmed that this is not happening at our plant or at our internal shipping yards," she said.

A similar smuggling attempt was discovered in March in Minnesota, where BNSF Railway police found 217 pounds of marijuana in seven vehicles, according to a Facebook posting by the police in Dilworth, Minnesota. Balzano said they were also Ford Fusion sedans shipped from Mexico. (Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)