Guns R Us
The arms deal was scheduled to take place around noon on April Fool's Day, 1993, in an empty Miami warehouse, one of hundreds of anonymous buildings cobbled together out of steel beams and aluminum siding and hastily erected during one of South Florida's spurts of growth. Luciano Maiello, a Brazilian businessman who deals in computers and their peripherals, drove to the warehouse in a gold Saab he had borrowed for the occasion. He was met by Roberto and Mario, two undercover agents from U.S. Customs posing as black-market gun dealers. (Their names have been changed in this article.)
"Look, [these weapons] are not for me," Maiello assured the agents as the three men settled into a small office next to the warehouse's bay area, built for loading and unloading large trucks. "I have several friends who are policemen and who have a shooting range. You know, in Brazil they only have Taurus and Rossi, which are shitty weapons."
"Son una mierda." They really are shitty, Mario grunted sympathetically. The fluorescent bulb overhead flickered as Maiello produced his shopping list, a handwritten fax transcribed in a shaky, almost neurotic scrawl that nonetheless clearly specified an order for some of world's most powerful firearms. Maiello wanted AR-15 assault rifles, the civilian version of the military-issue M-16 manufactured in the United States by Colt; semiautomatic 9mm pistols made either by the Austria-based Glock or the U.S.-based Ruger; .44 magnum handguns made in Israel; and fully automatic Uzi machine guns used by the Israeli army.
"The problem is, you know, that this is all under the table," Mario cautioned. The veteran customs agent serenely rested his elbows on the desk in front of him. He stares calmly at Roberto, his younger, more jittery partner, and Maiello. Both agents were casually dressed, while Maiello wore a white, long-sleeve, button-down shirt and balanced his briefcase on his lap. He spoke to the agents in nearly flawless Spanish enlivened by the singsong rhythms of Brazilian Portuguese.
"Si," he responded wearily. He explained that he had been buying weapons from a supplier in Pennsylvania, but that he'd rather do business in Miami. He bought his own personal gun at the Tamiami Gun Shop a few months earlier after filling out the required federal form and undergoing a background check, something he hoped to avoid this time around.
"You come here and you don't have to worry about all that shit," Mario crowed. It sounded like a salesman's spiel, but it was actually key to the success of the undercover operation. Customs wouldn't have much of a case if Maiello could later argue that he didn't know he was buying the guns illegally. The moment was crucial. The agents needed to warn the Brazilian without scaring him away.
Eager to conclude the transaction, Maiello failed to detect the tension edging into Mario's voice. "I only want to see the prices," he interrupted brusquely.
"We're businessmen," Mario said soothingly. "We can work this out. Let's see what we are talking about first."
"Normally what we're talking about is whether we're going to start a business of $20,000, $30,000 a week," Maiello continued after a moment. "Today let's do it this way: I'm going to take something, about $7000 or $8000 [worth of guns] as a test." If everything worked out, Maiello said, he would be back for more. In the meantime, he wanted Mario and Roberto to learn the code words he uses to fax orders to and from Brazil. Maiello began his tutorial with the weapons manufactured by Colt: "The AR-15, it's called a pony."
"It's a pony," Mario echoed.
"It's a pony, okay," Roberto said with more enthusiasm.
"Okay, Colt," Maiello continued.
"Yeah, yeah," Mario said.
"It's the horse."
"Verdad que si," said Mario indulgently. Wouldn't you know?
"The horse, the horse," Maiello emphasized, as if lecturing to a particularly slow-witted group of students.
"Verdad que si," Mario repeated, adding, "I also have the mini-Uzis for you, the mini-Uzis you asked for. I have them there."
"We call it Abraham," Maiello said fastidiously.
Roberto started to laugh. "I like doing business with this guy," he chuckled. He offered Maiello a beer, and they headed off to look at weapons that had been laid on bits of carpeting on the floor of the warehouse bay. The weapons were new, top-of-the-line models, sleek and deadly. Maiello picked them up one by one, toying with their triggers and hoisting them up to his shoulder.
When they returned to the office, Maiello was ready make a deal. He offered to pay $1500 for five Rugers and $2800 for seven Glocks. Each weapon was between $50 and $100 cheaper than it cost in a gun store.
"Here you go," Mario said, handing Maiello the clipboard on which he'd written the order. "As the Cubans would say, Te estoy dando el culo." I'm giving you my ass.
Maiello laughed. "Well, if you were a pretty woman . . ."
"It would be different," Roberto supplied the punch line.
"But with a face like that," Maiello continued. "With a beard..."
"And bald," Mario added.
"Hey," Roberto protested, "we all have beards."
"It's the same as a monkey," Maiello smiled.
"De pinga esta el tipo," Roberto says. This guy is fucked up.
"A gorilla." Maiello finished, still laughing at his joke. Then he decided to buy an additional eight weapons: a semiautomatic Uzi that the agents assured him is easily convertible to fully automatic, five AR-15 assault rifles, and three .44 magnums.
As they closed the deal, Maiello became more expansive. The friend who placed the order is a high-ranking police commissioner who would ensure that the guns cleared Brazilian customs, he said. "He's loaded," he added. "I have to buy him something like $350,000, $400,000 worth of weapons."
"Cono!" Mario exclaimed with mock surprise. In fact, Maiello's revelation about high-ranking police corruption in Brazil was irrelevant to his case. Mario planned on busting Maiello for violating U.S. laws prohibiting dealing in firearms without a license. Unaware of the video camera that was recording his actions, Maiello handed the agents $9600 in hundred-dollar bills. Together they walked back to the bay and raised the garage door so Maiello could back his Saab into the loading area. Midday sunlight flooded the warehouse. As soon as the weapons were safely in the trunk, Mario and Roberto began to back away from the car. "You have plenty of space there," Mario called out helpfully as he gave the take-down signal.
So ended the promising career of yet another international arms smuggler who had hoped to make his base in Miami, where there has always been plenty of room for renegades, mercenaries, and middlemen of all stripes. Well-known in the Eighties as the favored weapons mart for Colombian drug lords and Central Americans fighting for an advantage in their countries' civil wars, Miami has attracted a new batch of arms aficionados in the Nineties, according to federal officials responsible for the task of stemming the illegal flow of weapons from Miami to the rest of the world.
According to Bruce Snyder, the Miami spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), Florida is second only to Texas in illegal arms exports. "Primarily because of our location," Snyder observes, "we do find that Florida, and South Florida in particular, is the supplier of the South American and Caribbean market."
ATF and customs agents say their seizures often serve as a bellwether of global trouble. Just as business with Colombians and Central Americans began to fall off beginning about 1989 because of successful drug enforcement operations and cease-fire agreements in Nicaragua and later in El Salvador, federal agents began seeing an upsurge in illegal arms exports to Brazil. It was around this time that drugs, especially cocaine, began their insidious takeover of Brazilian shantytowns, known as favelas, and home to millions of urban poor.
Elizabeth Leeds, executive director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lived in a favela in Rio de Janeiro as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sixties. She returned in 1988 to study the relationship between community organizations and the state. "There were drug traffickers in all the favelas without exception, but at the time there was still a balance [between trafficking and community activities]," she says. "Relatively speaking, turf was respected. But in 1991-1992, the balance shifted." Traffickers became the undisputed rulers of the slums, often with the implicit or even explicit support of the various branches of the local police.
Battles between rival drug gangs and between the traffickers and the police fed Rio's growing crime wave as civilians regularly got caught in the crossfire. The homicide rate rose to more than twenty murders each day, double that of New York City. Schools and churches were routinely closed because of the violence. This past October the State University of Rio de Janeiro was forced to suspend classes after two warring gangs created a battle zone around one of its campus buildings.
By November of last year, then-president Itamar Franco decided to send in the Brazilian army to take control of the favelas after officials estimated that up to 70 percent of Rio's local police were linked to the drug trade. Although initially perceived as a success because the troops did not meet with organized resistance, by late December traffickers had begun fighting back. Two days after Christmas, drug gangs armed with AR-15s surprised 300 soldiers trying to take control of a favela on Rio's wretched north side. After fleeing to a tangle of shacks, the soldiers held their position for about 30 minutes and then withdrew. Violence has since escalated.
"Our biggest problem is that shops in Miami are supplying arms to traffickers in Rio," says Andres Barbeitas, a federal prosecutor based in the city. He describes the "principal route" of illegal arms shipments as extending from Miami to Paraguay, where the weapons cross the Brazilian border and are trucked all over the country.
Francisco Carlos Garisto, head of the newly formed national labor union representing federal police officers, coordinated the anti-drug task force of federal police in Rio de Janeiro until 1992. He says that 99 percent of the weapons seized by his division had been bought in Miami. "The United States will sell weapons to anyone, and they don't care if they are going to Ireland or to Brazil," he complains.
Garisto portrays the Miami purchases as "legal sales," and in a certain sense he's correct. As long as gun purchasers can show to a federally licensed dealer that they are Florida residents and they have not been convicted of a felony, committed to a mental institution, or dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, they can generally procure as many weapons as they like. (To buy shotguns or rifles, purchasers must be at least eighteen years old. To buy a handgun, they must be at least twenty-one.) It is almost always illegal, however, for someone to purchase firearms on behalf of another person; Brazilian arms smugglers commonly use this method of hiring a "straw purchaser."
Bruce Snyder, the ATF spokesman, admits that the system has long been abused by foreigners seeking high-quality, low-cost weapons. In South America, Snyder says, handguns will sell for three to six times their U.S. sticker price. "A guy will come here from Jamaica, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, and run around to the local gun shops buying up guns. The normal trafficking schemes that we run into would be that a person comes in with a fake ID, a fake driver's license, or he has family and friends who he'll utilize as straw purchasers."
Although strictly illegal, these types of sales are maddeningly difficult to detect. Not surprisingly, most employees of the gun shops scattered along Bird Road insist such incidents don't occur at all. "If someone comes here and buys some guns that I suspect will be illegally exported, I void the transaction immediately," asserts the manager of a well-known Miami gun store who asked not to be identified.
At National Gun, a sizable store on Bird Road a mile or so west of the Palmetto, purchasers of rifles and shotguns are required to present proof of age and Florida residency. The customer's identity is then checked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to determine if he or she has a criminal history. (These background checks often are completed in minutes. In 1994 the agency conducted nearly 50,000 of them.) In addition, the customer must fill out a federal form, known as ATF 4473, recording name, address, type of weapon purchased, serial number, manufacturer, and stating, among other things, whether he or she is a fugitive from justice, a drug user, an illegal alien, or subject to a restraining order, any one of which would prohibit the transaction. Lying on the form is a felony. However, the form remains on file with the gun shop and the information given is rarely verified by an independent agency. The customer can then pay for his purchase and leave. "You can buy one hundred guns if you have the money," says Snyder.
If the weapons are handguns, however, there are two additional checks. Purchasers are required by state and federal law to wait for a three-day cooling-off period before they can pick up their weapons. Gun-store employees are also required to mail a record of any multiple-handgun purchase (more than one gun) to federal and state authorities.
Foreigners may purchase firearms only if they are legal residents or if they can obtain from their country's embassy or consulate a letter from the chief diplomatic officer stating that they would be permitted to purchase such a gun in their own country. Luiz Benedini, consul general of Brazil in Miami, estimates that he signed 30 to 40 such letters per month until this summer, when Brazil tightened the law by requiring domestic approval first. However, Benedini would provide letters only for the purchases of guns that were legally sold in Brazil, sending Brazilians who wanted to buy the outlawed 9mm Glock pistols or AR-15 rifles into the black market or forcing them to use fake IDs or straw purchasers.
The gun-store manager who requested anonymity insists he can smell straw purchasers the minute they walk through his door. But customers of any sort are more rare these days, the manager claims. "Look, I only sold three pistols today," he says, holding up three yellow sales receipts. "They were to two Cubans and one Colombian. Business is terrible." (Indeed, Tamiami Gun Shop, from whom Luciano Maiello bought his personal weapon, shut its doors a few months ago after more than 40 years in business.)
The manager believes that the current slump in Latin American economies -- the devaluation of the Mexican peso and the banking crisis in Venezuela -- may be contributing to the decline in gun purchases. "Any time there are economic problems down there, it affects us up here," he says grumpily. "All businesses are hurting, not only the gun business."
If there is a fall-off in gun smuggling, however, U.S. Customs hasn't noticed it. Two weeks ago customs agents arrested three Haitians who were trying to smuggle 260 pistols and 14,900 rounds of ammunition in cargo crates delivered to Miami International Airport. The crates were labeled as containing tools and personal belongings. The weapons and ammunition had been purchased from a South Florida pawnshop for $27,750.
In July customs busted a Honduran national, Jose Ovidio Guzman-Vallecillo after he bought 34 handguns from undercover agents. Ovidio told the agents he had intended to smuggle them in a cargo container aboard a ship bound for Honduras with the help of a friendly Honduran customs official. He also claimed he had bought the weapons for resale to security companies in Honduras.
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."
Occasionally Alvarez gets hassled by federal agents. "I tell them, 'Listen, your job is to catch them. My job is to sell guns.' But if an ATF agent comes in here and says don't sell a gun to him, I don't."
He maintains that Miami Police Supply did nothing illegal by selling the guns to the Ecuadorians. "If someone comes in here with a driver's license and they want to buy twenty guns, I'll sell it to them. It's not against the law.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.