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"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 that Vidal will not be the last accused cigarette smuggler to face a hearing in South Florida. Numerous studies have shown that tax hikes inevitably lead to increased cigarette smuggling.
Starting July 1, Florida will impose a $1-per-pack increase on cigarettes on top of the current 33-cent tax. For wholesalers in particular, quadrupling the tax 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.
The tax increase will put Florida over the median U.S. state tax of $1 per pack. And it will make our taxes the highest in the Southeast. Alabama and Georgia collect less than 50 cents per pack — and South Carolina charges only 7 cents. Miami and Fort Lauderdale also have two of the busiest ports in the United States, with thousands of tons of daily cargo from Latin American nations like 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 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 U.S. 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 cigarettes. 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.
As for the Irish terrorists connected to South Florida's latest cigarette smuggling case, the Real IRA scored a major coup with the attack on the Massareene Barracks. But the attack's ringleader, a 41-year-old named Colin Duffy, was arrested soon after the assault. Sinn Fein and other formerly radical Irish unionist parties loudly decried the attack. And Irish voters declined to derail the peace process in a nationwide election held in June.
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, a reporter at the Irish Independent newspaper who covers the group. "The attack brought home the fact that these groups are still capable of real, devastating violence."
Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were buried by friends and family in March and hailed as heroes around the United Kingdom.
"He was my best mate," says Limahl Cottrell in an email interview. Cottrell grew up with Quinsey in Birmingham and started a Facebook group in his memory. He says Quinsey would have been proud to die in uniform — even if it wasn't on the battlefield he was expecting. "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. "The way he died was a sudden shock and just pure evil," Dervish says. "In our hearts, he lives on as a hero."