Black-Market Cigarettes: Miami's New Vice

Their bags were packed. Their farewells had been said.

Like the rest of the British 38th Regiment Royal Engineers, Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar had shed their jeans and T-shirts for the camouflage they'd wear during the next six months.

All around the barracks, soldiers threw green canvas bags into huge piles and made last-minute phone calls to family. In just a few hours, they would depart for Helmand Province, a remote desert enclave in Afghanistan besieged by Taliban warriors.

It would be the first combat tour for both Quinsey and Azimkar. They were ready to go — but first, they wanted to enjoy one final night of civilization. So they called Domino's Pizza to deliver one last hot meal.

The men walked outside into the damp, cold March night. It was about 9:40 p.m. at the Massereene base in Antrim, Northern Ireland, a town of 20,000 about 22 miles west of Belfast. The sun had set hours ago.

Everything seemed normal. As Quinsey and Azimkar approached a two-story brick guard tower, a pair of sentries waved and opened the razor wire-topped metal gate that separated the barracks from the A6 road outside.

In the wet driveway, just past a chainlink fence, a couple of Domino's deliverymen leaned on their cars, a red Mazda and a souped-up blue sports car with a spoiler.

The two young soldiers said hello and handed over the cash.

Then, with an abrupt whip-crack, a pop, pop, pop ripped through the night air. Bullets rained on the driveway, slapping off the asphalt. Dozens stung Quinsey and Azimkar and knocked the deliverymen and guards off of their feet.

The two gunmen stopped firing. Sudden silence descended as they leapt from a green Vauxhall Cavalier. M16s in hand, they sprinted to the men moaning on the ground, leveled their rifles at the two young soldiers bleeding on the pavement, and fired.

The gunmen returned to the car and peeled off to the west. More than 60 spent casings lay smoking among the bodies.

In less than five minutes, the brutal attack left Quinsey and Azimkar dead, the two pizza deliverymen and a pair of guards clinging to life, and the historic 1998 peace agreement between Irish Catholics and Protestants suddenly imperiled.

Though the bullets rang out in a drizzly Irish suburb thousands of miles from Miami's sunny shores, investigators now believe the assault began right here, in an anonymous cargo ship docked at the bustling Port of Miami.

A gray-haired 57-year-old Cutler Bay man named Roman Vidal smuggled millions of cigarettes from Miami to Dublin criminals who funded the terrorist group that killed Quinsey and Azimkar, investigators say. The charges are just the latest link between black-market U.S. smokes and violent terrorist groups around the world.

It's the first cigarette smuggling case in Florida with explicit ties to a terrorist organization, but at least four major rings around the nation have been busted in the past seven years with proven connections to Hezbollah, the Iraqi Kurdistan Workers' Party, and North Korean weapons runners. A four-monthlong review of court filings and interviews with investigators reveals exactly why smuggling smokes might be the best racket for America's enemies.

Underground cigarettes provide huge profits at low risk: a perfect paradigm for violent gangs. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimates states lose more than $5 billion in taxes every year to sales of black-market smokes. And those caught in the act face only a maximum five-year federal sentence, and sometimes get less.

Globally, cigarettes now rival drugs as the most profitable underground product. A recent project by the Center for Public Integrity found that governments worldwide lose up to $50 billion every year in tax revenue. One in ten cigarettes is sold underground.

Today, more than 300 federal cigarette smuggling cases are open nationwide, including several in South Florida. State officials have busted almost 30 smuggling rings in the Sunshine State during the past year. And because cigarette taxes recently increased by 300 percent, investigators expect the trade to explode.

For the average smoker, those under-the-table, tax-free packs might seem like a bargain. But as the recent history of cigarette smuggling vividly illustrates, when you buy black-market smokes, you never know whose paycheck you're signing.


The Miami Connection

On January 9, 2006, everything was going according to plan for Roman Vidal. He wore his graying hair combed straight back into a puffy cloud above a long, weathered face and square glasses.

That morning, the latest shipment from Panama arrived right on time — 730 cases containing 7.3 million cigarettes were inside a 15-meter metal shipping container stacked among hundreds of others on a freighter at the Port of Miami.

As usual, Vidal had already been in touch with his contact in Spain. Funds had been wired from a Portuguese bank into his account. The contacts in Dublin were ready for the shipment of smokes.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink