Black-Market Cigarettes: Miami's New Vice

The feds say a local man smuggled millions of smokes for terrorists. He's not alone.

Vidal's friend worked for a freight forwarding company. He wrote up a bill of lading, the document U.S. Customs uses to track shipments, showing the box contained nothing more than a few hundred cases of wood.

A few weeks later, the container arrived in Dublin. Vidal shelled out $2,900 in taxes on the flooring. Another $2.1 million in taxes — the tariff due on all of those cigarettes stuffed under the floorboards — went unpaid.

The next major shipment arrived two years later, on February 6, 2008. A 15-meter container arrived in the Port of Miami on a freighter from Panama. This time, 600 cases with 6 million cigarettes sat inside. Later that day, Vidal visited a Miami Home Depot and bought $2,000 worth of building insulation. He covered the cigarettes with it.

A lawsuit accuses R.J. Reynolds Co. of smuggling cigarettes, like these shown, into Iraq.
REUTERS/Faleh Kheiber/Newscom
A lawsuit accuses R.J. Reynolds Co. of smuggling cigarettes, like these shown, into Iraq.

With the goods hidden, Vidal shipped the container to Felixstowe, a major port in southeastern England. Another $2.1 million in taxes went uncollected on the concealed cigs. More cash from the Portuguese bank flowed into Vidal's account.

According to a recently released federal indictment, the Cutler Bay man had established this smooth operation through years of travel to Panama and coordination with his European contacts. But what he didn't know was these two shipments were different from all the previous ones.

The friend at the freight forwarding company had flipped and was cooperating with a federal agent. Vidal's calls to Spain had been tapped. His bank accounts had been tagged. And his shipments had been seized in Dublin and Felixstowe by waiting agents of the Brussels-based European Anti-Fraud Office.

The investigation continued for another year, until ICE nabbed Vidal this past February 19, about four years after he began shipping black-market cigarettes from Panama through the Port of Miami to criminal gangs in Europe. Investigators say they found Vidal working "in concert with a criminal organization that has associates operating in Spain, Ireland, and... the Southern District of Florida," according to the indictment.

Investigators turned up an even more disturbing connection. The gang, they say, was a wing of the Real IRA — a splinter terrorist group that killed Quinsey and Azimkar outside their barracks.

After his arrest, Vidal, who has no prior criminal record, paid $5,000 in bond and was confined to his Cutler Bay home. The feds charged him with conspiracy, mail fraud, and smuggling goods from the United States. He pleaded not guilty and requested a public defender.

His house, a spacious salmon pink ranch with a wide semicircular driveway, is surrounded by palms. It sits on SW 184th Lane in a labyrinthine suburb near Galloway Road. On a recent weeknight, a white Ford Bronco was parked in the driveway. High shrubs surrounded by a tall wooden fence filled his back yard. Large homes stretched down the unlit, quiet street. Several looked poorly cared for, but Vidal's place was impeccable.

He and wife Delia bought the house in 2003 for $270,000, according to county records. But neighbors remember the couple living there for only the past year or so. No one on the block had ever had a conversation with him.

"He really keeps to himself," said Tom Dean, a 44-year-old stonemason who lives next door.

When New Times visited, Vidal swung open his heavy front door after a few knocks. His gray mane framed his long face. His eyes and teeth were yellowed, as if he'd smoked quite a few of the cigarettes he allegedly funneled through the Port of Miami.

"OK, I'll talk," he said quietly, taking a reporter's business card and staring at it for a moment. "But not now. I'm very busy tonight."

With that, he shut the door. He never called back.

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The Irish Connection

If federal investigators are correct about Vidal's ties to a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army, he's far from the first South Florida connection to the violent struggle in Northern Ireland.

In fact, Miami and Broward have had as many IRA-connected busts in the past 25 years as any region in the nation, outside New York and Boston. Federal agents in recent years have busted attempts to buy a Stinger missile, export explosives detonators, and smuggle dozens of guns from Florida to Ireland.

"No one here is surprised by connections between the IRA and American underworld figures," says Mick Fealty, a Belfast native who lives in England and writes about Northern Ireland's politics. "That's been the modus operandi of these groups for quite some time."

The first major case — and one of the most significant ever prosecuted against IRA operations in the United States — began in 1989 inside a smoky Riviera Beach pub called the Chateau Bar. A 33-year-old Irish expat named Kevin McKinley liked to get drunk there with friends.

Like many Irish immigrants, McKinley never truly left behind the troubles of his homeland; the 400-year conflict between British-aligned Protestants and Irish-aligned Catholics was part of his upbringing.

McKinley spent hours at the Chateau Bar bragging about his plans to get guns to the IRA, the group that was then fighting for Northern Ireland's independence.

One night in the winter of '89, he met two men who said they could help. They showed him Polaroids of a stolen Stinger missile — a 35-pound rocket capable of shooting down 747s.

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