Guns R Us

You live in Rio de Janeiro and you've got a little problem with an overzealous police force. Your difficulties could be solved with a few hundred assault rifles and a couple of tons of ammo. Welcome to Miami!

The arms deal was scheduled to take place around noon on April Fool's Day, 1993, in an empty Miami warehouse, one of hundreds of anonymous buildings cobbled together out of steel beams and aluminum siding and hastily erected during one of South Florida's spurts of growth. Luciano Maiello, a Brazilian businessman who deals in computers and their peripherals, drove to the warehouse in a gold Saab he had borrowed for the occasion. He was met by Roberto and Mario, two undercover agents from U.S. Customs posing as black-market gun dealers. (Their names have been changed in this article.)

"Look, [these weapons] are not for me," Maiello assured the agents as the three men settled into a small office next to the warehouse's bay area, built for loading and unloading large trucks. "I have several friends who are policemen and who have a shooting range. You know, in Brazil they only have Taurus and Rossi, which are shitty weapons."

"Son una mierda." They really are shitty, Mario grunted sympathetically. The fluorescent bulb overhead flickered as Maiello produced his shopping list, a handwritten fax transcribed in a shaky, almost neurotic scrawl that nonetheless clearly specified an order for some of world's most powerful firearms. Maiello wanted AR-15 assault rifles, the civilian version of the military-issue M-16 manufactured in the United States by Colt; semiautomatic 9mm pistols made either by the Austria-based Glock or the U.S.-based Ruger; .44 magnum handguns made in Israel; and fully automatic Uzi machine guns used by the Israeli army.

"The problem is, you know, that this is all under the table," Mario cautioned. The veteran customs agent serenely rested his elbows on the desk in front of him. He stares calmly at Roberto, his younger, more jittery partner, and Maiello. Both agents were casually dressed, while Maiello wore a white, long-sleeve, button-down shirt and balanced his briefcase on his lap. He spoke to the agents in nearly flawless Spanish enlivened by the singsong rhythms of Brazilian Portuguese.

"Si," he responded wearily. He explained that he had been buying weapons from a supplier in Pennsylvania, but that he'd rather do business in Miami. He bought his own personal gun at the Tamiami Gun Shop a few months earlier after filling out the required federal form and undergoing a background check, something he hoped to avoid this time around.

"You come here and you don't have to worry about all that shit," Mario crowed. It sounded like a salesman's spiel, but it was actually key to the success of the undercover operation. Customs wouldn't have much of a case if Maiello could later argue that he didn't know he was buying the guns illegally. The moment was crucial. The agents needed to warn the Brazilian without scaring him away.

Eager to conclude the transaction, Maiello failed to detect the tension edging into Mario's voice. "I only want to see the prices," he interrupted brusquely.

"We're businessmen," Mario said soothingly. "We can work this out. Let's see what we are talking about first."

"Normally what we're talking about is whether we're going to start a business of $20,000, $30,000 a week," Maiello continued after a moment. "Today let's do it this way: I'm going to take something, about $7000 or $8000 [worth of guns] as a test." If everything worked out, Maiello said, he would be back for more. In the meantime, he wanted Mario and Roberto to learn the code words he uses to fax orders to and from Brazil. Maiello began his tutorial with the weapons manufactured by Colt: "The AR-15, it's called a pony."

"It's a pony," Mario echoed.
"It's a pony, okay," Roberto said with more enthusiasm.
"Okay, Colt," Maiello continued.
"Yeah, yeah," Mario said.
"It's the horse."
"Verdad que si," said Mario indulgently. Wouldn't you know?

"The horse, the horse," Maiello emphasized, as if lecturing to a particularly slow-witted group of students.

"Verdad que si," Mario repeated, adding, "I also have the mini-Uzis for you, the mini-Uzis you asked for. I have them there."

"We call it Abraham," Maiello said fastidiously.
Roberto started to laugh. "I like doing business with this guy," he chuckled. He offered Maiello a beer, and they headed off to look at weapons that had been laid on bits of carpeting on the floor of the warehouse bay. The weapons were new, top-of-the-line models, sleek and deadly. Maiello picked them up one by one, toying with their triggers and hoisting them up to his shoulder.

When they returned to the office, Maiello was ready make a deal. He offered to pay $1500 for five Rugers and $2800 for seven Glocks. Each weapon was between $50 and $100 cheaper than it cost in a gun store.

"Here you go," Mario said, handing Maiello the clipboard on which he'd written the order. "As the Cubans would say, Te estoy dando el culo." I'm giving you my ass.

Maiello laughed. "Well, if you were a pretty woman . . ."
"It would be different," Roberto supplied the punch line.
"But with a face like that," Maiello continued. "With a beard..."
"And bald," Mario added.
"Hey," Roberto protested, "we all have beards."
"It's the same as a monkey," Maiello smiled.
"De pinga esta el tipo," Roberto says. This guy is fucked up.

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