Hernán Marcelo Vega should have his own infomercial describing his recipe for fast cash. Sure, it involves skirting a few hefty federal laws. And yes, it centers on supplying guns to terrorists and guerrilla groups that could kidnap and kill thousands. But Vega, and dozens of other gunrunners in South Florida, have developed a perfect scheme to smuggle guns while avoiding any serious prison time.
Back in July 1998, Vega made his first visit to the Miami gun store that would become his weapons supplier. The shop is nestled in a nondescript plaza next to an insurance office and a tapas bar off SW Eighth Street in Miami. Ironically, most of its customers are cops, and the shelves are full of jackboots, flak jackets, and weapons ranging from minipistols to the machine guns used by SWAT teams. Vega chose his store well, though. Miami Police Supply is, after all, an establishment that has sold weapons to at least three gun smugglers in the past decade. It was the source of a shipment of handguns to Ecuador in 1993 and another bound for Cuba two years ago. It's all part of the business, suggests store manager Hugo Chiu. You sell them -- legally -- and they go who knows where. Chiu doesn't remember Vega, he says. It is upsetting, though, to read in the papers about his guns' being used by guerrillas.
Chiu shrugs helplessly. "If someone comes in here and passes the background check and everything is copasetic," he says, "how do we know what the person is going to do?"
Vega presented the store with a shopping list for 14 rifles coveted by guerrilla groups. Mostly, Vega wanted Bushmasters, the civilian version of the .223-caliber M-16 rifles carried by the U.S. military. They're built tough enough to remain reliable while being slogged through a South American jungle or trudged across deserts. And accurate enough to hit a target from a quarter-mile away, as the D.C. snipers proved. The rifles can even be converted, using directions found on the Internet, into fully automatic machine guns ready for insurrection.
It was simple for Vega to avoid attention. Federal regulations allowed him to buy the guns with only a photo ID and three months of local utility bills, even though he's a citizen of Ecuador. The deal went down so easily that Vega paid the gun store nine more visits, handing over about $1,000 each for 86 high-powered rifles. At 54, with gold-rimmed bifocals and graying hair receding into a v across his forehead, Vega looked like no more than a South American businessman who apparently liked to collect high-powered guns of the same type. Back in Ecuador, he could sell them on the streets for perhaps $3,000 or $4,000 more than he paid.
From watching Miami Vice a few too many times, the gunrunning neophyte might think the next step in Vega's operation would involve cigarette boats landing on South American beaches or planes covertly dropping crates full of guns into the jungles. But no, getting the guns out of the country was the easy part -- with a little help from Uncle Sam. Vega simply dropped them into the mail. Since U.S. Customs officials are more concerned with packages coming in, most gun smugglers caught in South Florida over the years have used mail carriers as their method of getting the weapons back home.
Vega could still be buying guns and shipping them home today if it weren't for some bad luck. Last September, police in Colombia seized two Bushmaster rifles, one from a National Liberation Army rebel and another from a soldier with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, both guerrilla groups. Using serial numbers etched onto the guns at the Bushmaster factory in Windham, Maine, the Colombians traced the rifles back to Miami Police Supply -- and Vega. Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF, visited the address Vega listed on his bills of sale and found a medical supply company that had never heard of him. Agents started asking around town about Vega and learned that he did business at EQ Trading. Employees at the shipping company, which has since gone out of business, told agents that they had been sending packages for Vega to his home in Ecuador and had a couple ready to go. Inside, agents found 11 rifles broken down into components.
A week later, agents busted Vega at Miami International Airport as he got off a flight from South America. According to court papers, he admitted buying guns with the intention of exporting them illegally to Ecuador. But Vega refused to reveal the details of his gun sales in Ecuador, and authorities had little evidence of how his rifles ended up in Colombia. Police from the war-torn country were unlikely to appear for a trial in Miami to testify that the guns were found on rebels. So prosecutors in June agreed to let Vega plead guilty to three charges of giving a false address to a firearms dealer, and a federal judge sent him to prison for 37 months. It was a light sentence under the federal guidelines, and with good behavior, Vega could be out in less than two years.
In all, Vega could have walked away with a six-figure profit if he hadn't gotten caught. In his would-be infomercial, he could thank state lawmakers who have enacted laws that allow bulk purchases and federal sentencing guidelines that promote slap-on-the-wrist plea bargains. Laws allow foreign nationals to buy large caches of guns with little oversight in the United States, which has become an unwitting supplier of global insurrections. Likewise, several South Florida arms smugglers have avoided serious punishment by using federal laws that give breaks to snitches, with many of them turning informant on fugitives.
Because of its connection with Latin America and its buyer-friendly gun laws, South Florida has become a prime shopping ground for gunrunners. Moreover, federal agents acknowledge that the war on terrorism isn't likely to eliminate South Florida's reputation as a place to buy and smuggle guns. Months after the convictions of some of South Florida's most famous gunrunners, court papers and federal agents describe just how easy it is for terrorists from Ireland, South America, and the Caribbean to make piles of money supplying rebels with guns.
With an unkempt beard, a few extra pounds around his waist, and an old olive T-shirt hanging from his shoulders, Doug Thurmond looks a lot like the comic book dealer from The Simpsons. On a recent Sunday morning, he's sitting behind rows of assault rifles and shotguns for sale at a gun show in Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium. He came over from Florida's west coast to sell weapons from what he describes as his private collection.
"Look, you can thank the commissioners of Broward County for the five-day waiting period," Thurmond laments. In Florida, he explains, counties can set their own rules regulating firearms dealers, and commissioners in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties require the long wait for gun deals. Most Florida counties require only three days. "But there's an easy way to avoid it," Thurmond says, leaning in to explain.
Gun shows have long been notorious as shopping centers for illegal gun buyers. Many of the gunrunners nabbed in South Florida have told authorities they began their operations by buying weapons from traveling gun shows held nearly every weekend. Irish Republican Army operatives, for instance, arranged the illegal purchase of thousands of firearms in 1999 at a gun show at the National Guard armory in Fort Lauderdale. Jamie Higgins, a special agent with the ATF in Miami, says it's not uncommon to find disreputable dealers at gun shows. "If you ask 50 of them, chances are you'll find one, or maybe more," willing to sell guns illegally, Higgins says.
Thurmond explains that avoiding the law doesn't mean you have to break it. For $35, anyone with a clean criminal record can get a concealed-weapons permit that allows the holder to shop freely for firearms. In fact, there's a two-hour concealed-weapons-permit class held at the gun shows for $35. "Just go take the class," Thurmond says. "Then you can take home anything you want -- today."
Nearby, dealer Michael Henock of Pembroke Pines tells the same story. "All you need is a concealed-weapons permit," he says. "Why bother doing it without the paperwork? I'm not going to jail for that." Henock displays his rows of rifles, including the Bushmaster. "Name me a price," he says. "I'm here to sell guns today."
Get past the waiting period and the market is wide open. Laws that forbid the sale of some high-powered assault rifles are laughed off by most dealers. Henock and Thurmond and most of the other dealers at the gun show display rows of guns that include those outlawed by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which is commonly called the assault weapons ban. Thanks to a loophole in the law, dealers are free to sell outlawed assault weapons made before the ban, sometimes for double the price of guns made after the tougher rules went into effect. The banned guns are indicated by tags the dealers attach that brag "pre-ban." Guns with the tag include those with holders for bayonets, foldable stocks, and ribbed sheaths on the barrel to suppress the flash of firing. The foldable stock and bayonet comes in handy during close combat, and the muzzle suppressor becomes crucial when you don't want the enemy to spot your covert location. Those attributes might not sound important for home protection or hunting, but the guns can make a good Christmas present for your favorite rebel or sniper.
Gun control advocates have long argued that the ban has become indicative of the holes in federal firearms laws, which have long made the United States a shopping ground for terrorists and guerrillas. Most gunrunners caught in South Florida have bought their weapons legitimately from dealers selling firearms manufactured legally. The lax rules have attracted gun dealers even from countries renowned for their supply of guns, says H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas. According to authorities, smugglers probably come to the United States because of the ease of sticking the guns in the mail, as opposed to crossing foreign borders with them, and because of the supply of stolen military arms in America. "It doesn't make sense to me when people like Pakistanis are coming to the United States to buy guns, but they apparently do," Burnett says. "In Pakistan, there's whole towns set up to do nothing else but manufacture guns, and they have to come here to buy them? What's wrong with that picture?"
Most gun laws, like the three-day waiting period to buy handguns, are enacted by Congress, but the states are left to add further restrictions. In Florida, where gun control has never been a high-profile political issue, gun laws are among the nation's most lenient. The state's only tough stance on guns is to forbid them from being carried openly, Wild West style. Most recently, a measure proposed by State Sen. Debbie Wasserman (D-Weston) to require background checks on all firearms sold at gun shows died a quiet death in committee earlier this year in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Anti-gun groups have persuaded lawmakers in South Carolina and Virginia to bar anyone from buying more than one gun a month in an effort to prevent the stockpiling of weapons, but Florida has no limit on the number of guns anyone can buy.
Before shipping weapons overseas, gun owners must get approval from the federal government. But the law does not require foreigners who buy guns in the United States to declare whether they intend to send them to other countries. That means gunrunners like Vega can buy large numbers of guns without anyone asking questions about the purpose of the hoard of weapons. The federal form every gun buyer must fill out asks if the guns are intended for a third party, which would make it a crime, but no one checks on whether the purchaser is lying.
It's not the government's business to ask why a gun is being purchased, says Ted Novin, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, one of the most aggressive and well-endowed lobbying groups of any kind in the country. "The answer to reducing crime is not to increase the number of gun laws but to increase the enforcement of the laws," contends Novin, repeating the NRA's mantra. "There are over 20,000 gun laws on the books. There's really no need to create more."
There's no way to keep track of how many guns are shipped from Florida through the black market. However, a study conducted earlier this year by Columbia University found that Florida was a main supplier of guns smuggled illegally into New York City, an area with the nation's toughest gun laws. Howard Andrews, an associate clinical professor, says Florida gun dealers are some of the main suppliers for what he calls the "iron pipeline," an underground market where guns easily pass from Southern states with lax gun laws to those with tougher weapons restrictions. It's easy enough to fill a U-Haul full of weapons and send them up I-95.
With Florida's weak gun laws, there's little chance federal agents will know if a gunrunner is stockpiling weapons.
Federal law has long protected gun dealers, so much so that ATF agents are forbidden from inspecting gun shops more than once a year. Dealers inspected once know they have a year until the next visit. Instead, agents have tried to infiltrate the underground gun markets. Most ATF agents have addresses, pagers, and home towns devised for alter egos in the gun trade. "There's an old saying," Higgins says, "that you don't find swans in the gutter, and that's where we're spending most of our time."
Keith Andre Glaude fell into the gunrunning business simply because he was down on his luck. A drummer in a New York City jazz band, Glaude had been borrowing money from an old friend in his native Trinidad and Tobago for years. He ran into the guy while playing the drums in the island's Carnival parade back in 2001, and Clive Lancelot Small said it was time to cash in the old debt of $2,500. Without the money to pay him, Glaude, a bulky man of 48 with a gray beard that fills his face, agreed to pick up a few guns for Small in -- where else? -- South Florida.
The guns were destined for a Muslim extremist group, Small claimed, although the group later denied any connection to him. The radical faction was responsible for holding Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister and members of parliament hostage for five days in 1990. Harold Robertson, the consulate general in the Trinidad and Tobago government office in Miami, says the group is widely feared in his homeland. "This is a group responsible for the deaths of many people, including a relative of mine," Robertson said. "So what I would say about them would be inflamed and colored by that fact." Glaude was a member of the group until he left the island in the late 1980s, but he has claimed to know nothing about the destination of the guns. The pressure to pay off his debt was too strong for him to ask questions.
Glaude's contact back in the states was a man who went by "Pena" and was actually an undercover ATF agent named Steve McKean. They met in May 2001 in the parking lot of a Hooters restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. McKean brought a fellow agent along for the meeting, and Glaude noticed a handgun strapped to the new guy's leg. Glaude got nervous, suspecting correctly that they were undercover cops. He called Small in Trinidad, and Small did some research on the mysterious Pena. Small began by writing a letter to a friend serving time in a federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, who was supposedly a friend of Pena's. The friend was actually a government informant who had long been working with U.S. authorities to break down terrorist rings in Trinidad and Tobago. Naturally, the man told Small not to worry about Pena.
That was apparently enough to convince Small to move forward with the purchase. Besides, he didn't have as much to lose sending a hapless drummer in his place. The deal that was about to unfold would tell a lot about the world of gun trafficking. Like many similar cases, the low-level operators involved would rat out the others in exchange for short prison sentences. In the end, the accused ringleader would remain free. After arranging a deal that could have armed a rebel force twice the size of the one Fidel Castro began with in Cuba, no one involved would spend more than a few months behind bars.
On May 30, 2001, Glaude paged McKean and met him again in a restaurant parking lot in Fort Lauderdale. The agent took Glaude to a warehouse in Davie for the deal. Inside, 12 blue gym bags held 60 rifles and ten hand-held machine guns. Included were what they covertly referred to as "quieters," or silencers that can be attached to the guns before an execution. The agents began the deal by showing Glaude how to work the silencers.
"Don't these come with magazines?" Glaude asked, according to how he recalled the day later in court.
"They're in the bag," McKean responded. "Do you want to see them?"
Glaude had not touched the guns, and he explained to a federal judge later that he didn't want to. "I wasn't sure if they were even real, you know?" Glaude claimed. "I never handled these kinds of guns before, you know?"
Two minutes after they arrived, McKean told Glaude to pick up the machine guns. "Let's carry this to the van first because these are trouble," the agent told Glaude. "Give me a hand." When the pair put the guns in the back of Glaude's minivan and they officially came into his possession, agents swooped in to grab the drummer turned gunrunner.
Six months later, in November 2001, Glaude entered a guilty plea, and in exchange, prosecutors agreed to charge him only with possessing a machine gun. U.S. District Judge Wilkie Ferguson Jr. sent Glaude to prison for two years. But in March of this year, Ferguson released Glaude after he agreed to testify against Small. So far, though, Trinidad and Tobago has not responded to the U.S. prosecutors' request to extradite Small; federal agents say they're not sure why. But it appears now that only Glaude will serve time for what could have been a gun deal to fuel an uprising. It's typical in the convictions of gunrunners, and likewise for drug smugglers, that the minor players are the only ones who face prison time, says Sam Smargon, Glaude's attorney from the U.S. Public Defender's Office in Miami. "It's the couriers who get caught," Smargon says. "Then the government tries to flip them and often does. But then the big guys often can still walk away for one reason or another."
In court, Glaude described himself as a fall guy: "I never asked for any guns. I never wanted any guns. I wasn't looking for any guns."
Federal agents have never been closer to catching big-time gun smugglers than they were in the fall of 1999. They were so close that they've got pictures to prove it. In the end, though, they would have only low-level operators serving short prison sentences and a pair of fugitives. Their investigation and the prosecutions that followed would dramatically illustrate the difficulty of nailing big-time gun smugglers and the failures in the federal laws that ostensibly punish them.
It started on August 16, 1999, when Rajaa Abbas and Abdul Malik flew in from Pakistan to check out some missiles supposedly on sale in West Palm Beach. They were the infrared, shoulder-fired missiles made for the U.S. military and coveted by terrorists for their ability to shoot planes out of the sky. The pair bragged that the missiles were destined for Islamic groups. They even mentioned the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. More than two years before September 11, the names had little of the resonance they have since acquired. The Taliban controlled an obscure country most people couldn't pinpoint on a map of Asia, and bin Laden's claim to infamy was a possible connection to the explosion of a car bomb in a basement of the World Trade Center in 1993.
The two Pakistanis seemed impressed by the collection of missiles. They should have been: They came directly from stores kept by the ATF and brought there that day by undercover agent Dick Stoltz. Now retired, Stoltz was setting up the deal like a used-car salesman, offering to cut a good price in hopes of unloading what he said were stolen goods. He even snapped pictures as an emotionless Abbas plopped one of the missiles on his shoulder. There they were, two suspected gun smugglers, ready to make a deal. Stoltz tried to pressure them into taking home the weapons that day. But they walked out, saying they needed time to arrange for the money transfer.
Six months later, the pair faxed a wish list to Stoltz, according to court papers. They wanted not only the missiles but guns, airplane parts, and night vision goggles. Most disturbing of all, they requested something called heavy water, a component used in the production of nuclear bombs. The agreed-upon price: $32 million.
Another nine months passed. The ATF recorded 780 hours of conversations and meetings preparing for the sale. Finally, Abbas and Malik allegedly brought in a couple of New Jersey men to help arrange the deal. The two new operatives would appear on the day of the sale while the Pakistani pair remained at home. All they needed was someone to launder the money. They asked Stoltz for help.
Coincidentally, federal agents were already trying to bust a Wall Street financial manager named Kevin Ingram for money laundering. This seemed like the perfect chance to combine both cases. On June 6, 2001, Stoltz, posing as an arms smuggler, met Ingram at Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in Aventura, where Ingram and wife De Ann owned a home. It's where Ingram parked his yellow Ferrari and his 44-foot Sea Ray named Ingee. Sitting at Aventura Grill just off the golf course, Stoltz told Ingram he was about to arrange an arms deal and needed his help to launder the money. Stoltz explained that the guns were probably destined for terrorists.
Ingram didn't like the sound of that. "I'm a professional, and I have a reputation," he said, apparently implying that his status would be tainted with money from terrorists. "But I don't mind making money."
Ingram left without agreeing to the deal, but then he paged Stoltz less than an hour after the meeting. By telephone, Ingram said he knew a Connecticut pilot named Walter Kapij who could help whisk the money out of the country. For their part, Ingram and Kapij demanded 20 percent, or $2.2 million.
Finally, two years after the meeting in West Palm Beach, the pieces of the transaction came together. Ingram and Kapij were to meet the undercover ATF agents in Fort Lauderdale to get their cut of the money. Depositing a couple of million in a bank account would attract attention, so Kapij and Ingram were to rent a plane in Boca Raton and fly the money to Holland, where it would shuffle through enough foreign bank accounts until it seemed to disappear. After the transfer, Stoltz was to deliver the missiles and other goods to the New Jersey businessmen, who would ship the stuff to Pakistan.
Before his big windfall, Ingram had a blowout dinner at Opium Garden on Miami Beach, spending $468. He paid about $300 for two rooms at the Embassy Suites in downtown Fort Lauderdale for himself and Kapij and waited for the money to arrive the next morning.
At 10 a.m. on June 12, 2001, agents showed up with a duffle bag supposedly full of cash. They handed it to Ingram and then arrested him and Kapij for money laundering. What followed would be no less than a media circus; stories appeared in every major newspaper, and Dateline NBC devoted a segment to the deal. It appeared the government had nailed terrorists in the act of creating nuclear missiles and buying enough weapons to arm an uprising.
Once again, the low-level operators in the deal agreed to turn informant on each other in exchange for lenient sentences, meaning none of them will spend more than a few months in prison. Ingram and the two New Jersey men who organized the deal got out earlier this year after agreeing to testify against Abbas and Malik. According to court papers, Ingram had $1.7 million from prior earnings socked away in a Swiss bank account.
The worst punishment fell on Kapij, who knew so little about the deal that his testimony wasn't worth much. He's still serving a 33-month sentence. His attorney, Jim Eisenberg, says it shows a failure in the federal court system, where judges too frequently give breaks to snitches. "The people who are the real criminals can turn over, and their sentences are cut in half," Eisenberg says. "The little guys, who can't turn in anyone else, get stuck doing the time."
As for the testimony of the others, they all told prosecutors the deal was crafted by Abbas and Malik from Pakistan. It was they who wanted the guns in the hands of terrorists, they testified. The pair are living freely in Pakistan, even though the U.S. government has warrants out for their arrest. Agents won't comment on the reasons why the Pakistani government hasn't extradited the pair.
The missiles and heavy water never made it to Pakistan. But apparently, the millions they had agreed to pay for all those weapons may still be in their control. If they're still looking for weapons, they surely know where to shop.
On the day of his sentencing at the federal courthouse in Miami, Vega, the Ecuadorian gun dealer, made one last attempt to stay out of prison. He told U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez that he'd be willing to turn over one of the guns he bought in Miami to the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador. It's not the Bushmaster rifles but an Uzi, a hand-held .9mm that can be made into a machine gun. He said he was a collector and was holding onto the gun for his private stash. "That weapon that has caused me so much pain and suffering," Vega said, "I have that weapon in my house." He said all he needed to do was call his wife and let her know authorities would come and pick it up.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Lacosta jumped at the chance. And while they were at it, how about getting the other guns or finding out how they ended up in Colombia?
"I didn't hear him volunteering that, sir," the judge said after a pause. "I don't think you need to rent a truck."
Unlike many gun dealers facing prison time, Vega didn't turn over. He never ratted out those who must have helped him smuggle his guns from Ecuador to Colombia, where they landed in the hands of rebels responsible for thousands of murders and kidnappings. Martinez offered Vega one last chance before sending him away for 37 months, even agreeing to give him a year to think about it. Vega didn't bite.
Before the judge, Vega asked for leniency so he could spend time with his children. "I ask forgiveness from the U.S. citizenry for this deed," Vega said. He ended his speech by thanking the nation with weak gun laws that may have helped him get rich. "I would like one last opportunity. This is the first time I commit this kind of mistake. That is all, your honor. May God bless you, and may God bless this country."