A CBS4 I-Team investigation into your safety has discovered that South Florida is quickly becoming known for more than just sun, surf and sand.
For years, Miami and South Florida were known as the center of the drug smuggling trade into the United States. They were known as the days of the Cocaine Cowboys.
Now, federal agents say South Florida is fast becoming one of the hottest areas for the smuggling of guns and other weapons out of the U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents say the weapons are illegally shipped to international criminal groups overseas.
U.S. ATF agents took I-Team investigator Stephen Stock inside this growing smuggling trade to get a closer look.
The store surveillance tape showed what would normally be a typical sale at a gun store. But instead of a typical, legal gun sale, it’s what federal agents say is at the heart of a growing trade in illegal international weapons sales.
Agents say South Florida has become the launching pad for thousands of guns, explosives and other weapons. The weapons and explosives are shipped to gangs, drug cartels and other criminal groups from Central and South America to Europe and the Middle East.
“This is surveillance video from the security camera in the store,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the Miami Field Division of ATF Joseph “Joe Anarumo as he played the surveillance video.
Anarumo has led the Miami Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for years. And he’s seen Miami and Fort Lauderdale become more and more central to the illegal international weapons trade.
“It (South Florida) is the gateway to the Americas,” said Anarumo. “We have ports. We have international airports. The opportunity presents itself here. The ATF national tracing center has probably traced in excess of 380 thousand firearms (in the last year alone.)”
While not all those traces are from illegal guns seized by agents or used in crimes the vast majority are used by the criminal element according to the ATF.
And while Texas and Arizona remain the number one area for gun supplies to be smuggled over the border to Mexico, agents here in South Florida report more and more international weapons smuggling originating here in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale area.
“They bought a substantial number of weapons,” Anarumo said of one local group that shipped weapons to Central America before ATF broke up the ring.
To demonstrate, Anarumo showed more undercover video shot by ATF agents outside a motel near Miami International Airport. The undercover video shows suspects loading up eight different boxes with various guns and accessories hidden inside.
ATF intercepted the weapons before they were smuggled out of the country.
“A legally purchased firearm could be, let’s say, for instance $250 in the gun store,” said Anarumo. “You bring it out on the street you could get $500 (or) a thousand (dollars) for that same gun.”
I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked, “So the markup is great?”
“It’s tremendous,” said Anarumo.
“There’s a lot of money to be had?” asked Stock.
“Oh there’s big money. It’s a big money maker. Yes sir,” said Anarumo.
As surveillance video shows, many of these sales originate with legal purchases by what’s known as ‘straw buyers.’
“They boxed up their weapons and took them with the intention of shipping them off to Grand Caymans,” said of the suspects in the surveillance video.
Agents say a straw buyer typically purchases several guns legally before turning them over to a dealer. In the surveillance video shown to the I-Team the dealer was standing next to the female straw buyer in a white shirt.
The gun store worker selling the guns apparently did not realize what was going on. Both the straw buyer and the dealer were later convicted after the illegal shipment of guns heading overseas was intercepted by ATF in Miami.
“Again the salesman has no idea,” said Anarumo. “She (the straw buyer) has the legal ability to make these purchases. She provides the money she provides the identification.”
On the videotape, the money between straw buyer and store worker changes hands and the straw buyer and gun dealer walk out of the store with several weapons and a basket full of ammunition.
“They (straw buyers) purchase the guns at the direction of members of this organization at a profit generally they’re paid some sort of money for doing it,” said Anarumo.
I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked, “And they, the straw buyers, get a cut?”
“They get a cut absolutely,” said Anarumo. “And then those weapons are turned over to the folks that they are going to distribute them illegally.”
And there’s the case of Broward County businessman, Victor Needleman, who two years ago owned a gun shop in a warehouse in Pembroke Park.
Later, according to Federal Court records, dozens of handguns sold by Needleman were intercepted by ATF agents at Miami International Airport. The weapons were headed out of the country.
I-Team Related Links
Needleman Criminal Complaint
The seizure included nearly 50 Glock and FN 5.7 automatic pistols sold by Needleman to an international arms dealer, according to the U.S. District Court records.
The records show that Needleman later plead guilty in federal court to conspiracy and selling firearms to a convicted felon.
According to court documents, the dealer, Osmar Mejia, planned to transport the guns in the airplane’s carry-on luggage with his wife’s help to resell them on the streets of Guatemala.
I-Team Related Links
Mejia Criminal Complaint
Mejia Change of Plea Hearing
“To me yes it’s serious, because if we can save one person from being killed with an illegal firearm well then we’ve had a good day,” said the ATF’s Joe Anarumo.
But other guns, explosives, grenades, bomb materials and even parts for I-E-D’s (improvised explosive devices) get through and get shipped overseas.
Some federal agents told the I-Team they worry that some arms being sent from South Florida may end up in the hands of terrorists.
“Anything for money,” said one federal source who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “They (the dealers) don’t care who they sell to as long as they have cash.”
Recently, ATF traced back guns used by rival drug gangs in a huge shoot out in Guatemala to a buyer here in South Florida.
In fact, experts say the United States has become the largest supplier of illegal guns in the Mexican drug war between rival cartels.
Recognizing this problem the ATF just received $37 million dollars from Congress to establish permanent 10 member teams set up in 7 different cities to exclusively fight international arms smuggling.
In addition to Dallas, Las Vegas and Atlanta, one of those specialized gun interdiction teams is being set up here in Miami.