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!

Exporting weapons requires a license from the federal Office of Defense Trade Controls. Only a U.S. citizen, a foreigner with a valid green card, or a company incorporated in the United States can apply for the license, and they must present proof that they have import authorization from the country for which the guns are destined. The requirements dissuade many weapons smugglers, who find it more convenient to disguise their shipments as anything from automobile parts to consumer goods.

This deception is particularly easy for Brazilians, who even have a term for it in Portuguese. It's call jeitinho, the little way, and is usually referred to with a wink and a smile. It means anything from outsmarting the bureaucracy to not being a sucker who pays any bill that might be avoided -- whether it's for long distance calls, credit card purchases, import duty, or a customs declaration.

As trade between Brazil and Florida expands, reaching almost four billion dollars in 1994, corresponding opportunities for jeitinho abound. "Think of all the washing machines, the dryers, the refrigerators that leave the port every week," Snyder emphasizes. "There's just so much legal international trade that it makes it difficult for us to identify the smugglers."

Customs attempts to monitor the nearly 2.8 million tons of cargo that annually leave the Port of Miami by relying on tips, cooperation from legitimate exporters, and profiles of typical smuggling shipments. "We try to work smarter than [the smugglers do]," says Keith Prager, the agent in charge at the U.S. Customs office in Miami and local chief of the department's nationwide Exodus program, which aims to prevent illegal arms exports. Still, he concedes it's impossible to inspect every container.

In addition to shipping weapons to Brazil on freighters, some smugglers are also blending in with the increasing numbers of Brazilian tourists, says Francisco Carlos Garisto, the former Brazilian federal narcotics agent. Some 800,000 Brazilian tourists are expected to visit the United States in 1995, a considerable increase over last year's 635,000. "If each Brazilian tourist brings a weapon in with the clothing, videos, and toys they've purchased in Miami," he grumbles, "you're talking about enough weapons for a war."

The image of a T-shirt-clad, Reebok-sporting Brazilian tourist stowing an AR-15 among videos of The Lion King and souvenirs from Disney World might seem a bit farfetched. Yet the biggest bust of a Brazilian arms smuggling ring to date involved precisely such a scheme.

In April 1991 five Brazilians in Broward and Palm Beach counties were arrested for shipping more than 400 assorted weapons to Brazil from Miami over a two-year period. All five eventually pleaded guilty to violating U.S. export and gun-control laws. One of the defendants was arrested after he checked a suitcase containing 21 weapons, primarily Uzi 9mm pistols, onto a Varig Airlines flight bound for Brazil. About a week later, a second defendant boarded another Varig flight with a suitcase loaded with eleven weapons, including Uzi pistols concealed in VCR boxes and gift-wrapped packages. According to an affidavit submitted by an ATF agent assigned to the case, the men had bought the guns from a licensed dealer in Pompano Beach, using straw purchasers.

This past June Brazilian authorities arrested a former air force colonel for illegally importing fifteen crates of ammunition for assault rifles. The government believes the ammunition was linked to a North Miami Beach export firm called Maxima International Business, and a Brazilian judge has issued a warrant for the "preventive detention" of its owner, Delson Disusa, who vehemently denies any involvement in the affair. "They don't know where the ammunition came from," he insists. "They want to point the finger at someone and they're pointing it at me. They're looking for a sacrificial lamb, and I'm the only one [implicated] outside Brazil, so I can't defend myself."

Undercover customs agent Roberto continued to work arms-smuggling cases after helping bust Luciano Maiello in 1993. His job was interesting and it provided him with a unique perspective on world events. Invariably, just before a government somewhere in the hemisphere would topple or armed conflict would ignite, smugglers would appear in Miami, like cockroaches attracted to garbage.

So it was with the drug wars in Brazil's ghettos, and so it was when Ecuadorian arms smugglers came to Miami in the spring of 1994 and began stocking up on arms and ammunition. Roberto says he suspected that headline news would soon be made. In fact, he made his bust on December 8, 1994, less than two months before a border dispute Ecuador and Peru escalated into combat.

That case was straightforward. The smugglers had arranged to purchase 73 9mm pistols from Miami Police Supply, a licensed federal firearms dealer on SW Eighth Street that also stocks police-related paraphernalia A pistol grips, baseball hats, bullet-proof vests, uniforms. ATF and U.S. Customs learned about the deal and showed up in time to catch one of the smugglers loading the weapons into the back of his Jeep Cherokee.

Nine months after the arrest, Manny Alvarez, one of the store's owners, shrugs off the incident. "This is a business like any other," he says. "You can't control your product once it leaves your store." The 39-year-old gun dealer has a passion for staying out of his customers' affairs. His standard procedure, he says, is to ask only those questions required by law. He takes his customers' names, their driver's licenses, and runs a criminal background check as required by state and federal law. And he has them fill out ATF form 4473. "I don't have to ask these people what they want the guns for. It's none of my business." However, he adds, "If someone says, 'I'm buying 50 guns and I'd like to take them out of the country,' the first thing I'm going to say is that you need an export license."

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