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The Guns of Opa-Locka: How US Dealers Arm the World
Published in the December 2, 2002 issue of The Nation
The Guns of Opa-Locka:
How US Dealers Arm the World
by Jake Bergman and Julia Reynolds
 

A few years ago, the government of Colombia asked the United States to trace nearly fifty MAK-90 rifles it had seized from the National Liberation Army, or ELN. It turned out these rifles had been obtained by Colombian gun traffickers after being purchased at retail stores in the Miami area. The ELN is on the State Department's foreign terror watch list. Yet, like many other underground armies around the world, it buys its weapons in one of the world's freest arms markets. "The United States has for many years been a warehouse, a shopping center, if you will, for firearms," says retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (AFT) resident agent in charge Daniel McBride, "because of the ease of acquisition, not just in the state of Florida but typically throughout the United States. We are a very easy place from which to obtain firearms for transshipment back home."

Law enforcement officials describe the United States as a one-stop shop for the guns sought by terrorists, mercenaries and international criminals of all stripes. And September 11 has not changed that in any significant way. In fact, Attorney General John Ashcroft has refused to permit the use of gun purchase records to track crimes, a practice that the FBI had previously used and that conceivably could help to identify terrorists. Nor did Ashcroft propose closing gun loopholes as part of the USA Patriot Act. The result of the lax US system, says McBride, is "an ongoing cycle" in which weapons bought here end up fueling violence abroad, and in which America is regarded as the firearms "shopping center for the world."

Lobster Air and Gun Land

The story of a ragtag South Florida outfit called Lobster Air International illustrates just how easy US gun purchases can be. In the summer of 1998 Stephen Jorgensen began buying the first of what were eventually more than 800 MAK-90 semiautomatic rifles at a store called Gun Land in Kissimmee, Florida. He did not have a resale permit--known as a Federal Firearms License, or FFL--and he was not required to present one. But Jorgensen wasn't stockpiling the guns for his personal use; he was taking them to Opa-Locka airport near Miami and loading them aboard a light airplane headed for airstrips in Venezuela and Colombia, via Haiti.

Jorgensen's South American clients originally wanted AK-47s, but in the United States, the fully automatic AK-47 can be purchased from a dealer only with a Class 3 permit, which is difficult to obtain. The AK was modified in 1990 to get around the California Assault Weapons Ban--hence MAK-90, or "Modified AK 1990." It is virtually identical to the AK-47 but costs only $200 to $300, compared with $1,000 to $3,000 for a Russian-made AK-47. It is exempt from the national Assault Weapons Ban, enacted after the California ban, because it has slight alterations that give it a hunting-rifle appearance. Jorgensen, a hefty man with an easygoing manner, says the distinction is absurd. "These weapons happened to be a loophole because they didn't have a pistol grip on the stock. They had a thumbhole. How ridiculous!" The MAK-90 can use the same caliber bullet as the AK-47, and it can be converted to fully automatic with rudimentary mechanical skills; a number of websites offer kits and instructions.

The smuggling operation began when a lieutenant colonel of the Venezuelan Air Force asked Rafael Ceruelos if he knew anyone who could buy guns. Ceruelos, of Cuban origin, is a self-described import-export businessman who had already been doing business with the colonel, selling him aircraft parts through connections he had with an aircraft broker from Texas. Ceruelos speaks in a raspy voice, a more sophisticated version of Al Pacino's gruff Tony Montana character from Scarface. He likes to use words like "friggin'" a lot. He says that he just wanted to keep his clients happy.

Ceruelos says the Texan hooked him up with Jorgensen, an old Vietnam War buddy in Tampa who could get weapons at a discount. In 1998 several meetings took place in Dallas, Miami and Caracas to orchestrate a deal, which included setting up Lobster Air to import lobsters to the United States from Haiti. According to Jorgensen, the Venezuelan colonel and the interests he represented put up the money to buy an Aero Commander aircraft. Jorgensen contracted boat operators to circle Haiti and collect lobsters from remote villages, but that part of the plan never went forward. Lobster Air was apparently not in the business of selling lobsters.

On January 3, 1999, US Customs agents, acting on what they thought was a drug tip, stopped the Aero Commander, bound for South America, on a runway at Opa-Locka. But there were no drugs; instead, the plane was loaded with seventy-eight disassembled MAK-90s inside blue gym bags, along with 9,000 rounds of ammunition. Customs and ATF sources now say that Lobster Air's weapons were headed to Colombia's FARC rebels, another group on the State Department's terror list. But McBride, the retired ATF agent, says that "when guns are going into Colombia, there are a number of potential sources they could be going to, including the drug cartels, the various insurgency groups, paramilitary forces over there.... [It's] very difficult to tell exactly where those guns were going to go, unless you were fortunate enough to get some confiscated and then have the traces run back."

Jorgensen was detained and interrogated. Facing indictment on weapons and conspiracy charges, he quickly agreed to cooperate with what was now a US Customs-ATF investigation. Meanwhile, Ceruelos proceeded to concoct more business. Jorgensen, however, was recording their conversations for federal prosecutors. The Venezuelan customers needed 200,000 rounds of ammunition, so Ceruelos agreed that Jorgensen would buy the ammo at a local gun shop in 10,000-round increments, so as not to arouse suspicion. Jorgensen assured Ceruelos, "They don't monitor buying the ammunition; you don't sign, nobody knows you bought it. So that's a fairly low risk."

With the secret recordings in prosecutors' hands, Jorgensen and Ceruelos were soon indicted--not for buying the guns, but for violating the Arms Export Control Act. Ceruelos served fifteen months and Jorgensen received only probation, thanks to his cooperation and what he describes as a "sterling military record." It may be surprising to learn that buying hundreds of MAK-90s and thousands of rounds of ammunition that could supply US-designated terrorist organizations doesn't raise any eyebrows. But there is simply no requirement for gun stores to report suspicious activity. If a customer buys more than one handgun in five days, the store must report the sales to ATF, but the MAK-90 comes with no such restriction. Nor does ammunition. Some gun-store owners say they voluntarily tip off ATF to suspicious buyers, usually after the sale is made and the money collected.

'Bubba Did It'

When Gun Land's owner, William Ben Woodall, answers the phone, he doesn't use his real name. "Tell 'em Bubba did it," he laughs. "Bubba" says there's no limit to the number of guns that someone can buy in Florida. He says he'd probably call ATF if someone came in to buy hundreds of semiautomatic rifles, but that if the person "looked right and acted right" and passed the NICS test--the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which requires gun-shop owners to call ATF and check whether a client is a felon or is otherwise prohibited from buying guns--he'd have no problem. Such a purchase, he says, is ultimately a customer's right. "Cars kill more people than guns," he says.

Weapons sold over the counter can quickly find themselves bound by air for distant countries. Since September 11, 2001, Customs has stepped up its monitoring of outbound small aircraft, but such inspections are aimed more at stopping the delivery of components used in weapons of mass destruction, like triggering devices or plutonium, than at halting gun shipments. McBride says we should also be concerned about guns. Recalling a 1985 rampage by one guerrilla group, he says, "The M-19 raided and assaulted the Palace of Justice in Colombia, killing 115 people, eleven Supreme Court justices, and wiped out the Supreme Court of the country of Colombia. And these were guns that were subsequently traced back to the United States."

McBride says South Florida investigators came to see a connection between purchases here and violence abroad. "We would see, all of a sudden, a rash of large gun purchases, a large quantity of gun purchases throughout South Florida. We would find that then, a month or two months later, we would see a coup take place in Haiti." McBride adds that Florida is especially attractive to South and Central America, "because of our geographic location [and] the ease with which firearms can be secured here."

Guns and the War on Terror

After September 11, Attorney General Ashcroft told the nation, "It's our position at the Justice Department and the position of this Administration that we need to unleash every possible tool in the fight against terrorism, and to do so promptly." The resulting USA Patriot Act includes broad changes in surveillance, information sharing and intelligence tools available to law enforcement. Although the "Patriot" part of the act's title refers to "Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism," the act contains no new provisions for the monitoring or control of firearms.

One tool became apparent in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when agents from ATF asked the FBI to cross-check a list of terrorist suspects against NICS records of approved gun purchasers. The records ATF wanted the FBI to examine were the normal background check records of potential gun purchasers, which are kept for ninety days. But when the FBI began its NICS checks, Attorney General Ashcroft and Justice Department officials stepped in and told the FBI it was out of bounds.

"This decision by the Attorney General was surprising in that he didn't place officer safety and the security of the American people first," says a former official at the Treasury Department, which oversees ATF. Kenneth James, recently appointed to the firearms committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, agrees. "If we have some form of identifying who of these terrorists may have had guns, that just makes our investigation and the people who are out there on the frontlines that much safer."

Ashcroft defended his decision on legal grounds. "It's my belief," he said, "that the United States Congress specifically outlaws and bans the use of the NICS database--and that's the use of approved purchase records--for weapons checks on possible terrorists or on anyone else." But an internal Justice Department memo shows that Ashcroft's own office of legal counsel believed otherwise and supported the longtime FBI practice of using NICS records in criminal investigations. "We see nothing in the NICS regulations," the memo read, "that prohibits the FBI from deriving additional benefits from checking audit log records."

Mathew Nosanchuk once worked for the Justice Department, where he became an expert on law enforcement's use of NICS. He now works for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun-control group. Ashcroft, Nosanchuk says, is forcing the FBI and ATF to "conduct the post-September 11 investigation with one hand tied behind their backs." Nosanchuk says Ashcroft's stance "really underscores his allegiance to the agenda of the gun lobby." The National Rifle Association's position is that NICS "has serious flaws that must be corrected."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA and related pro-gun lobbyists contributed $48,900 to Ashcroft's failed 2000 Senate re-election bid. Federal Election Commission filings indicate the NRA also spent $239,000 on independent TV and radio ads, billboards and bumper stickers supporting Ashcroft's campaign. Later, the NRA Political Victory Fund spent more than $100,000 on an endorsement letter and $19,000 on bumper stickers at the time of Ashcroft's Justice Department confirmation.

Law enforcement has increasingly found guns to be a critical source of evidence in its investigations of terrorists and other criminal groups. It was the suspects' outdoor shooting activities that led to the October arrests of four alleged Al Qaeda trainees in Oregon and Michigan. As Ashcroft himself pointed out, members of the group "acquired various firearms and engaged in weapons training and physical training in preparation to fight a jihad." Among the detainees swept up in the weeks after 9/11 were several members of Al-Fuqra, a domestic group suspected of at least seventeen firebombings and thirteen homicides in the United States. Three Al-Fuqra members were arrested and convicted of illegally buying assault rifles, pistols and AK-47 ammunition in rural Virginia. A prior weapons-violation warrant was used to detain last month's Washington-area snipers until murder charges could be filed. (The Bushmaster rifle the snipers used is another modified weapon designed to avoid the Assault Weapons Ban.)

Even international criminals criticize America's lax gun laws and say they inevitably lead to international trafficking. Conor Claxton, who was convicted of smuggling more than 100 guns from Florida to the Irish Republican Army in 1999, said the group did its shopping near Fort Lauderdale because "we don't have gun shows in Ireland. You see things here like you never imagined." Rafael Ceruelos, who has lived in Spain since serving time for his offenses, says, "The right to bear arms made sense 200 years ago but not now." He adds, "As long as people can buy weapons in gun shops, there will be people from other countries who want to do business with them."

Jake Bergman is a reporter for public radio KQED in northern California. Julia Reynolds, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism, is the editor of El Andar magazine.

Copyright © 2002 The Nation

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