The Size of Their Toys

COPEX separates the men from the boys

Well, it finally happened. An unnerving milestone was reached on February 26: a major terrorist strike on U.S. soil. The bombing of a high-profile public building is no longer something that only happens in faraway countries. The faaade of invulnerability has been irrevocably shattered.

Addressing the World Trade Center bombing, President Clinton alluded to the right of every American to feel safe. But when it came time to explain how he planned to back up that statement, Clinton was less comforting. Perhaps that is because, as the rest of the world has long known, no one can guarantee such a right. Were it not for tremendous luck on the part of investigators (or, more to the point, tremendous stupidity on the part of the terrorists), the crime might still be unsolved. And although some suspects have been taken into custody, authorities admit that several others remain at large and probably will continue to pursue their new hobby. While our government can take steps to diminish the threat, the bottom line is that they cannot eliminate it.

We are on our own. And that's where a trade show like COPEX comes in handy. Convened several weeks ago in the Riverfront Exhibition Hall at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami, COPEX (the Covert and Operational Procurement Exhibition) is not just another gun show. It is not open to the general public. You won't find a bunch of tattooed yahoos with beer bellies tromping down the aisles in search of cheap reloads for target practice with their .22s. This is where the big boys shop, where intelligence agents, diplomats, special police groups, and procurement authorities go to check out the latest in low-intensity-conflict and counterinsurgency gear. A visitor profile supplied by English sponsors Osprey Exhibitions Ltd. included all four branches of the U.S. military, the CIA, FBI, DEA, NSA, BATF, and a host of other agencies with equally sinister acronyms.

Attendance is supposed to be by invitation only. As the application for admittance explained, COPEX is open to "certifiable military, federal government, and law enforcement personnel with decision making powers. Tactical commanders, unit O.I.C.s and Intelligence/CO-IN chiefs are especially encouraged to attend. Industrial and private security officers with proper identification are also welcome."

The cop guarding the entrance stood about six-foot-six and had biceps you could paint orange and enter in state fairs as pumpkins. "ATTENDANCE IMPLIES COMPLIANCE WITH SECURITY MEASURES IN FORCE," read the sign on the wall. If the muscled flatfoot at the portal wasn't intimidating enough to ensure said compliance, then maybe the body-armored, automatic-weapon-toting, Robocop-looking security guard patrolling the exhibition would be.

The Riverfront Exhibition Hall is not one of Dade's larger convention sites, but it could have comfortably accommodated 50 percent more booths than the 90 or so COPEX exhibitors in attendance, who paid anywhere from $1750 for a ten-by-ten booth to $6000 for a twenty-by-twenty island display to advertise their wares. Unlike gun shows, there was no admission charge, and plenty of room to maneuver once you made it past the door. Booths were open and uncluttered, well stocked with brochures, and usually staffed by two or more neatly dressed salespersons.

No bartering is done at COPEX exhibitions (another is planned for late May in Baltimore), unless it is discreetly carried out among the merchants themselves. You can't bring in your Walther PPK and trade it for a Smith & Wesson .38 and a couple of hundred rounds of ammo. In fact, unless you are an authorized purchasing agent for some military or law enforcement body in the U.S., you can't legally procure many of the goods and services being presented. Of course, as more than one wholesaler was quick to point out, if you have an office (or a contact with a mailing address) in a foreign country, or a friend in law enforcement, such statutory constraints are easily circumvented.

The Miami expo was, to be charitable, uncrowded. As COPEX organizer Dick Brannon explained, "The emphasis is on quality customers, not necessarily on raw attendance numbers." And a good thing, too, because much of the time exhibitors outnumbered attendees. Most were only too willing to explain arcane details of their products to visitors who expressed even the slightest interest. With the exception of occasional monitors displaying videos that extolled the virtues of various vendors' commodities in action, business was conducted in hushed tones, with a veneer of discretion and a minimum of hucksterism.

The highly professional people from REMOTEC, a world leader in the production of hazardous-duty robots A the fearless little tykes who handle bombs, nuclear waste disposal, and other tasks deemed too dangerous for human folk to undertake A brought along a couple of 'droids from the company's ANDROS series, which resemble miniature remote-control tanks with arms and pincers. The Andros MARK V-A is the preferred robot of U.S. military bomb squad forces, having beaten out sixteen other robots from around the world in an eighteen-month competition. The World Trade Center blast hasn't yet brought the flood of inquiries that the Gulf War did, so you can still get your hands on one for under $66,000.

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