Black-Market Cigarettes: Miami's New Vice

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

McKinley soon invited an IRA weapons expert named Joseph Martin McColgan to South Florida. On the cool evening of January 12, 1990, McColgan got in a car idling outside the Denny's restaurant in Riviera Beach. He wanted to go see the goods. A cool $50,000 in cash was locked in a safe deposit box for the men with the missile.

After entering a West Palm Beach warehouse, the IRA expert was handed the 50-inch Stinger. Then he did the unexpected. He grabbed it and bolted. He tried to stuff it into his trunk, but it wouldn't fit. So McColgan heaved the rocket into the passenger seat, jumped in, and peeled out of the parking lot.

He didn't know the men selling the Stinger were undercover FBI agents. Nor did the weapons expert notice the Stinger's warhead had been removed. Lawmen arrested McColgan before he reached the street. McKinley and three of his drinking buddies were collared moments later, hiding out amid a rainbow of stained glass in a North Palm Beach shop called Irish Leaded Lamps.

Joaquin "Jack" Garcia at the FBI Academy in 1980.
Courtesy of Jack Garcia
Joaquin "Jack" Garcia at the FBI Academy in 1980.
Mark Quinsey, age 23, and Patrick Azimkar, age 21, were killed in March by the Real IRA.
Mark Quinsey, age 23, and Patrick Azimkar, age 21, were killed in March by the Real IRA.

McKinley and McColgan each got 51 months in federal prison. At the time, it was among the biggest busts of IRA operatives in the States. But it wasn't the last in South Florida.

A couple of years later, two natives of Northern Ireland were arrested for their alleged role in a plot to send 2,900 explosives detonators to the Provisional IRA. John Lynch, then age 42 and living in Sebastian, and William Kelly, a 54-year-old West Palm Beach resident, were accused of working with McKinley to buy detonators. The men were later acquitted of the charges when a judge ruled the evidence circumstantial.

In April 1999, Florida and federal agents busted a huge IRA gunrunning scheme in Broward County. A pretty Boca Raton stock broker named Siobhan Browne; her boyfriend, Anthony Smythe; and an IRA operative named Conor Claxton were buying weapons for the IRA at South Florida gun shows. They hid the weapons in packages of toys and VCRs and mailed them to Ireland. But Browne spelled her own demise by buying five guns at one show. Soon the ATF was onto her scheme.

After her arrest, Browne told police Irish nationalists had been gunrunning out of South Florida for years. More than 50 IRA volunteers in the area helped the cause, she said. And when FBI agents stormed Claxton's hotel room, he offered them defiant and prescient last words of freedom: "You didn't get all of us."

Much has changed since then, though. The Irish government signed a peace agreement with the IRA that brought many members of the terrorist group into the government. It marginalized some nationalists who formed a new group to continue fighting the British. They called themselves the Real IRA. That's the group Vidal allegedly sought to aid — the one that gunned down Quinsey and Azimkar.

The story of Vidal's smuggling doesn't surprise Jim Gregory. He grew up Catholic in County Armagh in Northern Ireland. He still remembers graduating from high school and being told "there's no work for Catholics here."

Today he splits his time between his homeland and Fort Lauderdale, where he owns the pub Maguire's Hill 16. The peace agreement dramatically transformed Ireland for the better, he says. But the troubles aren't likely to end soon. And South Florida's ties to it all probably won't disappear. "Times have changed and they can't handle it," he says. "They're all sick fucking people."


Smokes for Terror

Joaquin "Jack" Garcia had no idea how lucrative the black-market cigarette trade had become until he was pulled headfirst into one of the largest smuggling rings in history.

Garcia was born in Havana in 1952. His father, Manuel, was an official in the Cuban treasury department, and his mother sang opera, until Fidel Castro's revolution swept the island. In 1959, Manuel fled to New York. He worked three jobs to save enough to pay his family's way to Miami when Jack was 9 years old. The Garcias later moved to New York City. Young Jack eventually grew into a six-foot-four, 250-pound football star.

Inspired by the Al Pacino flick Serpico, which described a rogue undercover agent infiltrating the mob, Garcia applied to join the FBI after college. With his thick New York accent, huge frame, and slick dark hair, Garcia could imitate a mafioso better than anyone in the agency. He quickly found his niche infiltrating East Coast mobs, working almost entirely undercover.

In 1999, Garcia was called to Atlantic City to help Lou Calvarese — a hefty agent with a long undercover FBI resumé. Calvarese introduced him to May and Charles Liu, a Los Angeles Chinese-American couple with an incredible operation.

The Lius contracted with four factories in China that produced quality knockoffs of Marlboros, Camels, and other major brands. The Chinese factories could produce 10 million cigarettes for only about $125,000. In the United States, the haul cost about $2 million. The Lius paid Customs workers in China to ignore the shipments out of Beijing, and then snuck the containers through the busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"It was just amazing profit," Garcia says. "If you looked at the packaging, it was identical to the real deal. You could tell the difference if you smoked one, but they were otherwise perfect copies."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets