A desk, a chair, a TV stand, a book case.

The cheap furniture was packed into a truck and shipped across the Mexican border en route to the North Charleston area.

On the surface, such a shipment wouldn’t appear to be a concern for federal agents or local police officers. But underneath, it was how authorities said a Mexican drug cartel smuggled into the Lowcountry nearly 2 tons of marijuana worth about $4 million on the street.

Made to look like wood, the drugs were stuffed between the veneer of inexpensive furniture and shipped by the truckload. Federal agents stumbled across one load at a Texas border crossing and ultimately traced it to destinations in Charleston County and North Carolina.

Acting on what they learned in Texas, law officers from federal agencies, the state, the county and North Charleston unearthed more than 3,734 pounds of pot Nov. 6 when they raided a truck here.

Though it wasn’t the biggest drug find in the county’s history, as some authorities had hailed it as, the discovery was one of the most unique here and one that might have put a dent in a Mexican cartel’s smuggling operation. A marijuana bust in 1978 on Edisto Island netted about 16 tons more than the recent one.

“This ought to serve as a rather rude wakeup call for this community in the sense of who we’re dealing with and the level to which the drug trafficking has come to,” Sheriff Al Cannon said during a news conference Tuesday. “The cartels are very active in the United States.”

Authorities arrested two people that they described as foreign nationals in connection with the investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. But the probe isn’t done, so they declined to release the suspects’ names.

Of the nine men booked into the county jail on charges of illegal entry on the day of the bust, only two remained behind bars Tuesday.

Officials also would not discuss how or where the marijuana was distributed after it reached North Charleston.

Packing process

Though it was a unique sight for local authorities, the method of smuggling has been used in other operations nationwide, according to federal agents.

Joseph Gallion, a Charlotte-based deputy special agent in charge in ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division, said smugglers likely used a machine to compact the marijuana into 1-foot-by-1-foot squares.

The tiles were less than an inch thick and each weighed about 1 kilogram, or a little more than 2 pounds. They were wrapped in plastic, then masking tape, and dyed brown to mimic the color of wood.

The smugglers then opened up furniture and jammed the tiles between the panels before reassembly.

About 120 of the tiles were on display Tuesday at the U.S. Customhouse in downtown Charleston as authorities touted finding the illicit loot. The stack represented about one-eighth of the seized drugs, Gallion said.

When Customs and Border Protection officers inspect the furniture at a border crossing, the tiles might appear to be part of the interior wood, Gallion said.

Gallion refused to say exactly how or when officers came across a South Carolina-bound marijuana shipment at the World Trade International Bridge, a span dedicated to commercial traffic in Laredo, Texas.

They have several detection methods at their disposal, including X-ray technology and drug-sniffing dogs.

Whatever the officers found ignited the investigation that led to the bust in Charleston County earlier this month.

To Gallion, the find indicated how sophisticated smuggling measures have become and how bold some cartels can be in sending marijuana to the U.S.

“They operate all over the place,” he said. “They’re not worried about boundaries and borders. They’re multinational.”

Outsmarting cartels

Though Gallion said a 2-ton drug bust would be significant anywhere in the nation, it’s not the largest in the Lowcountry’s history.

In September 1978, officers from the Charleston County Police Department found about 18 tons of marijuana in and around two trucks that overturned in a ditch on Edisto Island, according to published newspaper accounts at the time. The police also came across an attache case stuffed with $16,000 in cash.

Nine men from Miami and Puerto Rico were arrested. Their 500 bales of marijuana were burned at a North Charleston chemical plant.

The latest bust employed support from officers in the air and on the water, Cannon said. But he and other officials would not discuss where it happened.

To the sheriff, the bust makes for “pretty significant evidence” that Mexican drug cartels are a “serious and real” problem here. Much of the violence that plagues parts of Mexico has been attributed to the organizations, he said — something local authorities must watch for.

But Cannon and other officials said they could not have made progress in their anti-drug campaign without cooperation from different levels of law enforcement.

The Charleston unit of the Border Enforcement Task Force, an ICE-led group that includes local and state investigators, took credit for the bust.

Chief Eddie Driggers of the North Charleston Police Department said the scale of the bust would not have been possible without the collective effort. He recalled his first drug bust as a young police officer, when he found a “dime bag” of marijuana, or about $10 worth, on a street-level dealer.

“This is an evolution,” Driggers said. “They are becoming more educated in ways to smuggle marijuana, so we have to get more educated.

“That’s what it’s going to take ... to be better than they think we are.”

Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.