Friday, September 24, 2010

America's South Florida: An arms smuggler's paradise

The Miami Herald
Miami seems more and more like the Casablanca of movie legend.

This month, a Palestinian man and a Cuban migrant were charged in an FBI counter-terrorism probe with plotting to buy hundreds of stolen assault rifles, high-tech bombs and remote-control detonators to ship to the West Bank.

Shortly before that, Miami Beach arms wunderkind Efraim Diveroli -- already convicted of selling banned Chinese-made munitions to the Pentagon -- was arrested on new firearms charges in Brevard County after he allegedly tried to import rounds of ammunition from South Korea.

And two years ago, a ring of foreigners and businesses was charged with illegally supplying electronic parts to Iran via South Florida for explosives that could be used to target American soldiers in Iraq.

The disparate cases are among dozens of South Florida prosecutions alleging illegal arms trafficking, weapons exports, embargo violations, and shipments of ``dual-use'' military and commercial technology -- a sign of heightened federal enforcement in the post 9/11 era.

Known as an international marketplace for drugs and money laundering since the days of Miami Vice, the region has expanded into a viable gateway for arms smuggling -- not only to Latin America but also to the Middle East and Far East.

Federal agencies, accustomed for decades to battling shadowy drug cartels in South America, quickly adapted to weapons investigations. They've been deploying the same crime-fighting techniques -- government informants, undercover agents, tape recordings and Internet searches -- to make cases.

Three years ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement established a bunker in Fort Lauderdale for probing illegal arms trafficking, generating more prosecutions in South Florida.

``The investigations are not just focused on the smuggling of arms out of the Port of Miami, Port Everglades or Miami International Airport,'' said Anthony Mangione, special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Miami.

``We're focusing on these international arms brokers with laundry lists of weapons and explosives. These guys operate in the shadows, and it takes a lot to draw them out.''

In 2007, the Justice Department, recognizing the proliferation of illegal arms exports and related security threats, launched a plan to coordinate investigations, training and prosecutions. They also began pushing for more criminal cases throughout the country, beyond the traditional hot spots of large coastal cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

The goal: Stopping clandestine efforts by U.S.-designated terrorist countries and organizations from obtaining sensitive U.S. technology and parts for their rocket, military and nuclear systems.

According to the Justice Department, more than 390 people and companies have been charged nationwide over the past three years with violations of export, embargo and dual-use laws, mainly involving Iran, China and Mexico. But that is considered a conservative figure because it doesn't include all illegal firearms trafficking.

``The prosecutions have ramped up since we launched this initiative,'' Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said.

ALREADY ON THE MAP

But even before that policy shift, Miami was already on the map for firearms smuggling.

One unforgettable case: In August 2004, a couple of cardboard boxes of guns -- too heavy for the drop ceiling of a West Miami-Dade storage facility -- crashed onto a toilet, rupturing a water pipe. The leak caught the attention of law enforcement, leading to the indictment of six men on charges of illegal firearms sales and exports to Venezuela, where the weapons were to be sold to Colombian rebel and paramilitary groups.

In all, federal agents seized more than 700,000 rounds of ammunition and more than 200 weapons. ``They were essentially preparing to arm an army,'' then-U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez said.

Four years later, the U.S. attorney's office in Miami was at the center of a far more complex case -- involving a lot less luck -- linking South Florida to Iran and the Iraq war.

MADE IN THE U.S.A.

Eight foreigners and eight overseas businesses were charged with illegally exporting U.S.-made computer chips and other electronic components -- some supplied by a Broward company -- to Iranian-controlled corporations, prosecutors said.

The programming devices -- some shipped through Miami-Dade freight forwarders -- played an integral role in triggering roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in Iraq, according to authorities. Investigators found a California-made computer circuit in an unexploded roadside bomb in Iraq.

The U.S.-based technology suppliers were ``tricked'' into selling their products to companies that were fronts for Iran, prosecutors said. The corporations were based in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Singapore, England and Germany.

The Commerce Department and ICE Homeland Security Investigations dug deep into Internet, e-mail and other computer searches to expose the global network selling U.S.-made dual-use technology to Iran.

HIGHEST BIDDER

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Damian Visconti, who prosecuted that and other illegal arms export cases in South Florida over the past decade, said the IED case typifies the dangerous role of international arms brokers who are only interested in selling to the highest bidder -- regardless of whether they're dealing with rogue states.

``In the Middle East, they all use Google and Yahoo,'' she said. ``It doesn't matter that they're over there. They can buy the arms and explosives from a middleman.''

Commerce Department and ICE investigators have joined forces on more recent probes.

In June, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a former Israeli aviation executive were charged in Fort Lauderdale federal court with conspiring to export 2,000 AK-47s to Somalia -- after the Israeli allegedly wired $116,000 to a Wells Fargo branch in Broward County. The indictment charged Joseph O'Toole, 79, of California, and Chanoch Miller, 53, an Israeli citizen living in Tel Aviv, with scheming to obtain and transport the AK-47s from Bosnia to Somalia, an embargoed country. Miller was arrested in Miami after traveling here to close the deal.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, whose main mission for decades has been investigating the illegal gun trade, has increasingly helped other federal agencies as they probe more international smuggling cases.

Among ATF's roles: Tracing the serial numbers on more than 350,000 firearms recovered yearly in the United States and 60 foreign countries. The ATF also keeps track of some 200,000 large sales of handguns and other weapons at licensed dealers nationwide.

Last year, a Honduran woman was convicted of conspiring with her two fugitive brothers to purchase more than 100 assault rifles, pistols and sidearms from Miami-Dade gun dealers.

ATF agents found seven of the firearms hidden inside a sofa being shipped by a Miami cargo company. They contacted Honduran authorities, who seized three additional firearms from a television shipped through the same company.

This spring, ATF agents busted up a Miami-based arms network after they arrested four men who bought more than 370 firearms including assault rifles from Miami Police Supply, a retail business, and tried to ship them as ``automobile parts'' for resale in Bolivia.

``Guns are smuggled in all kinds of ways,'' said Joe Anarumo, assistant special agent in charge of ATF's Miami office. ``The exporters don't care if the label says `auto parts.'

``The smugglers are only limited by their imagination in how they get these firearms out of the country.''



Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/09/18/v-print/1831539/s-fla-becoming-gateway-for-arms.html#ixzz10QNYZPz7

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