Gunning for Profit

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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton