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Cuban Cigar Crackdown: Chicago Airports Confiscating More Cigars Than Ever

MICHAEL TARM   12/13/10 05:56 PM ET   AP

Cuban Cigars

CHICAGO — It's an unintended consequence of the fight against terrorism that's left some cigar aficionados fuming: Terrorists in Yemen try to send bomb-laden packages to the U.S. aboard cargo planes, and now a connoisseur in Iowa can't get his Cubans from Switzerland.

Tighter scrutiny and month-old Homeland Security restrictions on incoming air-cargo parcels have inadvertently stymied the common but illicit practice in the United States of ordering Cuban cigars from distributors in Europe.

As a result of the new regulations, authorities say seizures of Cuban cigars – considered the world's best but outlawed in the U.S. since a 1963 embargo on Cuba – have soared.

The surge has been most dramatic in Chicago, a hub of the country's air-cargo network. Typically, customs at O'Hare Airport confiscates some 2,000 Cuban cigars over two weeks. But more than 100,000 have been seized the last two weeks, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

"These new rules will make this trade more difficult," said Brian Bell, a Chicago spokesman for the agency.

The confiscations in Chicago and plans to destroy the seized cigars have created a buzz in the U.S. cigar community, with some enthusiasts expressing outrage. Chat-rooms on Cigar Aficionado magazine's website are flooded with talk about the seizures, with many commentators bemoaning how difficult it might become to acquire Cubans.

But high-end cigar shops that have complained for decades about incoming Cuban cigars cutting into their sales welcomed the sudden surge in confiscations.

"Guys who order Cuban cigars are telling me, `Gee, I'm going to have to buy more cigars from you now,'" said Chuck Levi, owner of Iwan Ries & Co. cigar store in Chicago. "I'm glad."

Others saw opportunity in the confiscations. One online commentator suggested that aficionados gather near where the cigars will be destroyed in Chicago to "cry and then breathe in the nice smoke."

A thwarted, Yemeni-based terrorist plot in October prompted the new procedures. The terrorists hid two bombs inside printers and addressed them to the former addresses of two synagogues in Chicago – possibly in a bid to take down two cargo planes over the U.S.

The new federal rules announced in November include a ban on all cargo from Yemen. Federal authorities also said there would be extra screening of many packages, though they have declined to elaborate on the new procedures to make it harder to circumvent them.

One of the main reasons so many cigars are being seized in Chicago is a new rule that almost totally bans shipping international parcels aboard U.S.-bound passenger planes. Since there are fewer cargo planes, European suppliers had to stockpile hundreds of packages before getting space aboard an air-freight plane, Bell said. Once customs identified one or two packages as containing cigars, he said, it became clear that similar-looking packages also held cigars.

Bell said his office phone has been ringing off the hook, with angry callers suggesting alternatives to destroying the cigars. One caller said they should be sent to U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"That idea was entertained," said Bell. "However, these are still illegal and that's where the problem lies." The agency finally decided the only legal recourse was to incinerate them.

As far as breathing the smoke, that's not happening either.

Authorities won't say where or when the cigars will be incinerated. And Bell says the incinerators don't so much burn the cigars as vaporize them. So, he says, there will be no smoke to inhale.

Those whose orders are seized can at least be thankful that they're unlikely to be prosecuted.

Individuals are normally just sent official notices that their items have been seized – though businesses and repeat offenders are sometimes prosecuted, Bell said. Someone charged and convicted could face a fine up to $55,000 or, in extreme cases, be sent to prison. The scale of the illicit imports is hard to gauge.

More than 250 million high-end cigars worth more than $2 billion are sold legally in the U.S each year – from nations like the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Jamaica, the Cigar Association of America says.

Some experts estimate up to 15 million Cuban cigars come into the U.S. illegally each year, usually via third countries. Many are ordered online through scores of websites that boast delivery of Cuban cigars to U.S addresses and offer money-back guarantees if the cigars don't arrive.

"We deliver from Europe anywhere in the world, including USA," boasts a British-based site, cigars-for-you.com, which claims to also have an office in Switzerland.

Many visitors to the cigar chat rooms speculate that customs agents are helping themselves to the Cubans impounded at an O'Hare Airport warehouse awaiting destruction.

Such suspicions harken back to when avid cigar smoker and then-President John Kennedy had his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, purchase 1,000 Cuban cigars for Kennedy's personal stash in 1963 – right before he signed the Cuban embargo order, Salinger, who died in 2004, wrote in his 2001 book, "P.S.: A Memoir."

Asked if customs staff might be tempted to pocket cigars, Bell responded immediately, "Absolutely not."

The cigars, he explained, are meticulously counted when seized and counted again just before incineration. If any are missing, he said, detailed records will expose the culprit.

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Filed by Jen Sabella  |