Black-Market Cigarettes: Miami’s New Vice
The feds say a local man smuggled millions of smokes for terrorists. He’s not alone.
By Tim Elfrink
Published on June 30, 2009 at 10:28am
“It’s the first cigarette smuggling case in Florida with explicit ties to a terrorist organization, but at least four major rings around the nation 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-monthlong review of court filings and interviews with investigators reveals exactly why smuggling smokes might 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 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, cigarettes 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 ten cigarettes is sold underground.
Today, more than 300 federal cigarette smuggling cases are open nationwide, including several in South Florida. State officials have busted almost 30 smuggling rings in the Sunshine State during the past year. And because cigarette taxes recently increased by 300 percent, 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.”