Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Miami Ice: Freon Smuggling Rivals Contraband in Drugs

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Miami Ice: Freon Smuggling Rivals Contraband in Drugs

Article excerpt

Forget marijuana, exotic animals, or Mayan archaeological treasures. One of the hottest illicit items among Florida's smugglers today is a gas coolant used in air conditioners and refrigerators.

It's called freon or CFC-12. And the black market in this potent chemical is thriving.

"After illicit drugs, chlorofluorocarbons have become the most lucrative contraband being smuggled into the United States," says Michael Sheehan, a US Customs Service agent in Miami.

An estimated 10,000 tons of it will be smuggled into the US this year. Federal officials say "it's becoming like gold" for traffickers. Miami has become the central port for its entry and distribution.

The trade is spurred by an international agreement, known as the 1987 Montreal Protocol, that bans the manufacture of CFCs in 140 industrialized countries by the end of this year. There is evidence that the chemical erodes the earth's protective ozone layer.

"Because of this impending deadline," says Sheehan, "CFCs are becoming more valuable and that's creating huge profit margins for illegal traffickers."

Federal freon tax

To encourage the use of substitutes that do not harm the ozone layer, the Federal Government imposes a tax of $5.35 a pound on all sales of CFCs, and retail prices have soared to $15 a pound from $1 in 1989.

Black marketerrs can make huge profits by buying the chemical from Russia and other countries and selling it here for less than the taxed product. The illegal shipments cost the US government more than $100 million a year in lost excise taxes and customs duties.

"The black-market refrigerant generally makes its way to distributors or automobile repair shops, where it's used in the repair and maintenance of older air conditioners," says Thomas A. Watts-Fitzgerald, an assistant US attorney in Miami. "Most of the indictments that have been handed down so far are against people who are legitimately involved in the automobile repair business."

Unlike the illegal-drugs business, smuggling in CFCs is considered a more palatable way to make illegal money. "Your average freon smuggler is a white-collar criminal who can still look at himself in the mirror," says a federal prosecutor in Miami. …

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