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!

"A gorilla." Maiello finished, still laughing at his joke. Then he decided to buy an additional eight weapons: a semiautomatic Uzi that the agents assured him is easily convertible to fully automatic, five AR-15 assault rifles, and three .44 magnums.

As they closed the deal, Maiello became more expansive. The friend who placed the order is a high-ranking police commissioner who would ensure that the guns cleared Brazilian customs, he said. "He's loaded," he added. "I have to buy him something like $350,000, $400,000 worth of weapons."

"­Cono!" Mario exclaimed with mock surprise. In fact, Maiello's revelation about high-ranking police corruption in Brazil was irrelevant to his case. Mario planned on busting Maiello for violating U.S. laws prohibiting dealing in firearms without a license. Unaware of the video camera that was recording his actions, Maiello handed the agents $9600 in hundred-dollar bills. Together they walked back to the bay and raised the garage door so Maiello could back his Saab into the loading area. Midday sunlight flooded the warehouse. As soon as the weapons were safely in the trunk, Mario and Roberto began to back away from the car. "You have plenty of space there," Mario called out helpfully as he gave the take-down signal.

So ended the promising career of yet another international arms smuggler who had hoped to make his base in Miami, where there has always been plenty of room for renegades, mercenaries, and middlemen of all stripes. Well-known in the Eighties as the favored weapons mart for Colombian drug lords and Central Americans fighting for an advantage in their countries' civil wars, Miami has attracted a new batch of arms aficionados in the Nineties, according to federal officials responsible for the task of stemming the illegal flow of weapons from Miami to the rest of the world.

According to Bruce Snyder, the Miami spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), Florida is second only to Texas in illegal arms exports. "Primarily because of our location," Snyder observes, "we do find that Florida, and South Florida in particular, is the supplier of the South American and Caribbean market."

ATF and customs agents say their seizures often serve as a bellwether of global trouble. Just as business with Colombians and Central Americans began to fall off beginning about 1989 because of successful drug enforcement operations and cease-fire agreements in Nicaragua and later in El Salvador, federal agents began seeing an upsurge in illegal arms exports to Brazil. It was around this time that drugs, especially cocaine, began their insidious takeover of Brazilian shantytowns, known as favelas, and home to millions of urban poor.

Elizabeth Leeds, executive director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lived in a favela in Rio de Janeiro as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sixties. She returned in 1988 to study the relationship between community organizations and the state. "There were drug traffickers in all the favelas without exception, but at the time there was still a balance [between trafficking and community activities]," she says. "Relatively speaking, turf was respected. But in 1991-1992, the balance shifted." Traffickers became the undisputed rulers of the slums, often with the implicit or even explicit support of the various branches of the local police.

Battles between rival drug gangs and between the traffickers and the police fed Rio's growing crime wave as civilians regularly got caught in the crossfire. The homicide rate rose to more than twenty murders each day, double that of New York City. Schools and churches were routinely closed because of the violence. This past October the State University of Rio de Janeiro was forced to suspend classes after two warring gangs created a battle zone around one of its campus buildings.

By November of last year, then-president Itamar Franco decided to send in the Brazilian army to take control of the favelas after officials estimated that up to 70 percent of Rio's local police were linked to the drug trade. Although initially perceived as a success because the troops did not meet with organized resistance, by late December traffickers had begun fighting back. Two days after Christmas, drug gangs armed with AR-15s surprised 300 soldiers trying to take control of a favela on Rio's wretched north side. After fleeing to a tangle of shacks, the soldiers held their position for about 30 minutes and then withdrew. Violence has since escalated.

"Our biggest problem is that shops in Miami are supplying arms to traffickers in Rio," says Andres Barbeitas, a federal prosecutor based in the city. He describes the "principal route" of illegal arms shipments as extending from Miami to Paraguay, where the weapons cross the Brazilian border and are trucked all over the country.

Francisco Carlos Garisto, head of the newly formed national labor union representing federal police officers, coordinated the anti-drug task force of federal police in Rio de Janeiro until 1992. He says that 99 percent of the weapons seized by his division had been bought in Miami. "The United States will sell weapons to anyone, and they don't care if they are going to Ireland or to Brazil," he complains.

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