Cutler Bay man smuggles cigarettes through the Port of Miami and goes to prison

So this is what a decade of international conspiracy with European underworld kingpins gets you? An empty bank account, a blue-collar ranch house in Cutler Bay with two unpaid mortgages, and a date with a federal judge.

For Roman Vidal, a 58-year-old with a thick mane of gray hair and a white mustache, that about sums it up. To that meager list, Vidal also can add 24 months in federal prison, three years' probation, and a $1.5 million fine — the sentence U.S. District Judge Alan Gold handed down last week.

All in all, it's an inglorious finish for a man who led the largest cigarette-smuggling ring busted in the Magic City, a scheme that funneled more than 20 million black-market smokes through the Port of Miami, with some of the proceeds perhaps funding deadly Irish terrorists.

"He certainly didn't accumulate many assets from these activities," Gold skeptically said to prosecutors during the sentencing hearing.

Vidal's smuggling career began sometime around 2000 when the importer-exporter and trucking entrepreneur hooked up with Isaac Godoy, a shadowy Spanish contact.

Over the next decade, Vidal plotted with Godoy and other European gangsters to buy dirt-cheap pallets of smokes in Panama and then smuggle them out of the Port of Miami on freighters under floorboards and building insulation. The gang avoided more than $5 million in taxes with the scheme.

What Vidal didn't know was that his business partner, a freight company owner named Ralph Perez, had flipped to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Last February, after wiretapping his conversations and tagging his bank accounts, ICE picked up Vidal and charged him with felony smuggling.

In the indictment, agents say they found an even more disturbing connection: Vidal's European contacts were helping to finance the Real IRA, a splinter terror group in Northern Ireland. A few weeks after Vidal's arrest, the group massacred two soldiers and shot two pizza delivery men outside a British base near Belfast.

But prosecutors likely decided tying Vidal to the Irish fanatics would be too difficult, and his connections to the terrorist group never came up at trial.

Vidal eventually pleaded guilty to four counts of wire and mail fraud. When Judge Gold told Vidal he'd spend two years in jail, the smuggler sat quietly without changing his expression. On his way out of the courtroom with his wife Delia and son Andres, he looked calm.

Riptide hoped to ask about his role in the smuggling case and what he knows about the Irish extremists.

But he shook his head as he walked past. On that count, Vidal is still mum.

 
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