When Peter Smolyanski sat down in Mango's restaurant on Fort Lauderdale's posh Las Olas Boulevard in 1995, he had no idea he was about to enter the world of rogue KGB agents and bargain-basement nuclear weapons.
Instead, the undercover police officer was investigating what he thought was an attempt to smuggle stolen Jeep Cherokees to Lithuania. He had identified himself to his Lithuanian contact as a close associate of a Colombian drug cartel with access to plenty of cash.
Soon, the contact's secret plan to smuggle stolen Jeeps switched into something much more serious and a lot more expensive - a $3.2 million deal to sell Mr. Smolyanski 40 Russian surface-to-air missiles and a promised second deal for a tactical nuclear weapon.
The case illustrates the high stakes that are often involved in the flourishing international black market among smugglers and profiteers. They include gun runners, money launderers, child pornographers, and copyright violators. Some flout the endangered-species laws to sneak Amazon tree frogs and turtles into America for resale in unsuspecting pet shops. Others peddle high technology and munitions, including ingredients for weapons of mass destruction.
It all represents the sleazy underbelly of the growing global economy. And it's fueled by the emergence of a multinational cadre of criminals who reap billions of dollars a year selling expertise in how to sneak contraband into or out of a country.
Because of the nature of smuggling, officials admit they don't know how much is really going on at any one time. But they acknowledge that the risks to US national security and to the nation's economic well-being are significant.
In Smolyanski's case, for example, arrests were made before any missiles left their Bulgarian factory and no nuclear weapon was ever sold. But US officials believe the smugglers had the ability to make good on their offers and that those weapons might have been sold to someone else - drug dealers, terrorists, insurgents, rogue nations - were it not for the diligence of US, Russian, and other law-enforcement officials.
On the front lines
In the US, the agents and inspectors of the US Customs Service staff the front lines in the fight against smuggling. Tasked with enforcing 600 different laws from 60 federal agencies, they direct most of their interdiction and investigative efforts at stopping the flow illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. But drug smuggling is only part of the nation's smuggling problem.
Go to Thomas Winkowski's office, and the port director of Los Angeles International Airport produces a veritable show-and-tell of weapons, vehicles, and counterfeit software that customs agents have snagged before the goods could be brought into or shipped from the country illegally.
One of his favorites is a dark blue sport-utility vehicle without an export license that was intercepted before it could be air-freighted to Azerbaijan. It was equipped like a prop from a James Bond film, with armor plating, smoke-screen projectors, oil-slick dispensers, and an electronic remote-control starting device just in case the prospective owner's enemies managed to hook up a bomb to the ignition.
To many criminals, smuggling is a numbers game. The huge volume of cargo and passengers arriving in the US each day makes it impossible for government officials to inspect all but a tiny fraction of the goods and people entering the country.
Last year, ships calling at US ports off loaded more than 4.5 million cargo containers - a favored hiding place of smuggled contraband. In addition, 6 million trucks entered the US either from Mexico or Canada and 118 million cars traveled the same cross-border routes.
Some smugglers also rely on people to carry their contraband across international borders. Last year, 68 million air passengers arrived in the US from overseas, and more than 8 million arrived at ports via ship.
So rather than waste their time with random inspections, Customs officials look for telltale signs of smuggling and use informant tips to focus their efforts.
"Searching randomly is just not an efficient way to detect smugglers, and thus we have a system in place to give us every advantage so we can spend our time on the most suspect shipments or potentially fruitful targets," says Richard Hoglund, a deputy assistant commissioner at Customs in Washington.
Putting money through the wash
In Los Angeles, federal agents recently broke up what they say is one of the largest smuggling cases in US history. Ten defendants were charged with illegally importing almost $100 million in Chinese-manufactured clothing and medicines to circumvent quotas and high duties on Chinese-made garments.
Smuggled in from October 1995 through February 1997, the medicines were destined for the large Chinese-American communities in southern California, Chicago, and New York. Meanwhile, the clothing, made in Hong Kong and mainland China, ended up on the racks of department stores in New York and Los Angeles, says Marc Gwaltney, a top Customs official in Los Angeles.
Other items that are frequently smuggled across the US border include:
* Money. Usually on its way out of the country, money is sent back to overseas criminal syndicates as payment for illicit drugs sold on American streets.
During a 2-1/2 year undercover investigation called Operation Casablanca, federal agents discovered a massive money-laundering organization that stretched from the US to Mexico and as far away as Italy and Venezuela. Agents linked the organization to the Cali and Juarez drug cartels. Named in federal indictments were 115 defendants, including officers at several of Mexico's largest banks. So far US authorities have seized $55 million in money and assets.
* High technology. Foreign business competitors seeking an economic advantage are willing to pay big money for American technology.
"It used to be the Soviet bloc was interested in our [military] technology to turn it against us, and some nations still are. But now instead of governments it is large corporations which are after our technology for commercial rather than military or strategic purposes," says Keith Prager, head of the strategic investigations division of the US Customs office in Miami.
* Exotic animals. Just last week, customs officials announced that they had broken up one of the largest exotic-animal smuggling operations ever uncovered in the US. They said rare baby parrots were stuffed in a cardboard box and driven across the US-Mexico border under the floorboard of a car. Other animals, such as spider monkeys, macaws, and a lynx, were also brought into at least nine US states illegally.
* People. Smugglers are also making money transporting men, women, and children into the US in violation of immigration laws.
On May 30, a 28-foot power boat ran aground on a New Jersey beach and 22 Chinese men swam ashore, where they were arrested in a smuggling operation foiled by fog and a confused captain. Officials suspect that each of the men agreed to pay as much as $40,000 for a chance to illegally enter the United States.
"Most of the aliens ... don't have that fee and so they become indebted to the organized crime groups that are smuggling them into the US," says Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "As a result we commonly see situations where Asians - and particularly Chinese - are held once they are smuggled into the US and the smuggling fee is either extorted from relatives or the alien is sold into indentured servitude or forced into prostitution or some other illegal activity to pay off the debt."
By far the most active alien smuggling region is America's Southwest border, where Border Patrol agents have averaged 1.3 million apprehensions a year for the past five years. Mexicans and Central Americans pay smugglers known as coyotes anywhere from $250 to several thousand dollars to get across the border undetected.
Although much cheaper than the Asia smuggling operations, the Mexican-based rings nonetheless reap huge profits. "The smuggling organizations operating on the Southwest border are like McDonald's. They deal in volume," says Mr. Bergeron. "It is incredibly lucrative."