South Florida Cigarette Smuggling Funds Terrorism

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 sand and olive camouflage they'd wear during the next six months in Afghanistan.

All around the barracks in Antrim, Northern Ireland, 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 besieged by the Taliban.

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

About 9:40 p.m., two Domino's deliverymen showed up at the front gate at the base in Antrim, a town of 20,000 about 22 miles west of Belfast. Quinsey and Azimkar walked outside into the damp, cold March night to meet them. As they approached a two-story brick guard tower, two sentries waved and opened the metal gate topped with razor wire that separated the barracks from the road outside. In the wet driveway, just past a chainlink fence, two 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 asphalt. Dozens stung Quinsey and Azimkar and knocked the deliverymen and guards off their feet.

The two gunmen stopped firing. Sudden silence descended as they leapt from a green car. 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 imperiled.

The bullets rang out thousands of miles away, but investigators now believe the assault had its origin in an anonymous cargo ship docked at a bustling South Florida port.

A gray-haired 57-year-old Cutler Bay man with no criminal history named Roman Vidal sold millions of cigarettes that had been smuggled 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 country 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-month-long New Times review of court filings and interviews with investigators reveals exactly why smuggling smokes may 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 that 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, black-market smokes 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 every ten cigarettes is sold underground.

Today, federal investigators are working 300 open cigarette smuggling cases nationwide, including several in South Florida. State officials have busted almost 30 smuggling rings in the Sunshine State during the past year. And with cigarette taxes about to increase 300 percent next month, 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 Florida 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 and had 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.

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Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink