Caveat Emptor Cuban Cigars

Article excerpt

Smugglers are doing a booming business in contraband Cuban cigars -- real and fake ones.

Americans' lust for cigars -- especially illegal Cuban stogies -- has sparked a sharp increase in smuggling and counterfeiting, according to federal and industry officials. The indictment in February of a Florida airline pilot, accused of smuggling 121 boxes of Cuban cigars into this country in violation of the embargo against Cuba is a well-publicized example of a problem US. Customs Service agents say they confront every day

The increase in seizures of smuggled Cuban cigars has been dramatic during the last three years, paralleling the cigar craze that has swept the nation. In 1991, Customs officials made 221 arrests, seizing 24,000 Cuban cigars. In 1996, they nabbed nearly 1,400 smugglers, confiscating more than 96,200 cigars. Under the embargo imposed in 1962, Americans are prohibited from transporting or buying Cuban products without authorization from the Treasury Department.

Last August, federal agents impounded 3,000 Cuban cigars found on a fishing ship belonging to Christopher Plummer, 35, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which they boarded west of Bimini for a routine inspection. Plummer, a pilot for Paradise Air, a Bahamas-based airline, faces a $300,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the smuggling charges. The booty included Cohibas and Montecristos, ranked among the world's best smokes by the upscale magazine Cigar Aficionado.

But the demand for the illegal brands became apparent a year earlier when customs officials caught a smuggler with 2,700 of them off the Florida Keys. The suspect told authorities he bought the cigars in Cuba for $3,600 and planned to sell them in the United States for as much as $28,000. …


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