Black-Market Cigarettes: Miami's New Vice

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

"It's extraordinarily difficult to prove those links. That's why we've really only seen one successful prosecution under that law," says Melzer, the American University professor, referring to the Hammoud case in North Carolina.

But it seems likely Vidal will not be the last accused cigarette smuggler to face a hearing in the new courtrooms at the Ferguson building. Numerous studies have shown tax hikes inevitably lead to increased cigarette smuggling.

On July 1, in an effort to keep the state afloat as property taxes plummet, Florida began imposing a one-dollar-per-pack increase on cigarettes on top of the current 33-cent tax. For wholesalers in particular, the 300 percent hike could be profound. Distributors must have a bond for their products. A small wholesaler whose bond cost $350,000 in June will have to pay $1 million in July.

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.

The tax increase will put Florida over the median U.S. state tax of one dollar per pack. And it will make our taxes the highest in the Southeast. Alabama and Georgia collect less than 50 cents a pack, and South Carolina charges only seven cents. Miami and Fort Lauderdale also have two of the busiest ports in the United States, with thousands of tons of daily cargo traveling to and from Latin American nations such as Panama — where dirt-cheap cigarettes are sold.

"You can assume based on history in other states that we're going to see a big surge in cigarette smuggling," says Maj. Carol Owsiany, who runs the southern region of the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco enforcement wing. Owsiany says her officers have closed 28 cigarette smuggling cases since last July — including seizing a shipment worth $217,000 in Miami that had been illegally delivered from North Carolina.

Inevitably, many smugglers will be connected to organized crime. "These are always structured, organized operations," says Phil Awe, who runs a division of the ATF in Washington, D.C., that targets cigarette smugglers. "You have to have a source, a wholesaler, a shipping network, a warehouser, and a retailer. It's not a mom-and-pop deal."

The federal Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act, passed in 1978, imposes a maximum five-year term in prison for the crime. So gangs have little disincentive to smuggle smokes. And some of those gangs are likely to be connected to more violent activities, Awe says. "We have more than enough evidence historically that this is a criminal activity closely tied to terrorism," he says.

John W. Colledge, who retired in 2007 as the top tobacco smuggling expert in U.S. Customs, believes South Florida could become a greater center for smuggling in the next few years. "Miami has been a major hub for black-market cigarettes since at least the 1990s," he says. "It's not received the attention it should. There are people still smuggling cigarettes in Miami today who have never been charged in any court of law."

As for the Irish terrorists connected to Miami's latest cigarette smuggling case, the Real IRA scored a major coup with the attack on the Massereene barracks. But they haven't stopped the peace process. The attack's ringleader, a 41-year-old named Colin Duffy, was arrested soon after the assault. And Sinn Féin and other Irish unionist parties loudly decried the attack.

Still, the Real IRA is regarded as a serious threat.

"There's probably a group of 20 to 40 hard-core supporters left, and they're continuing their efforts to enhance their terrorist capabilities," says Tom Brady, an Irish Independent reporter who covers the organization. "The attack brought home the fact that these groups are still capable of real, devastating violence."

Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar were buried by friends and family in March and hailed as heroes around the UK.

"He was my best mate," Limahl Cottrell says of Quinsey. Cottrell grew up with him in Birmingham and started a Facebook group in the soldier's memory. He says Quinsey would have been proud to die in uniform — even if it wasn't on the battlefield. "He was due to fly out to Afghanistan only a few hours after his death... He was really looking forward to getting out there."

Azimkar's cousin, Nezire Dervish, says the attack devastated the young soldier's family. "In our hearts, he lives on as a hero," Dervish says. "The way he died was a sudden shock and just pure evil."

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