A few years ago, the government of Colombia asked the United States to trace nearly fifty MAK-90 rifles it had seized from the National Liberation Army, or ELN. It turned out these rifles had been obtained by Colombian gun traffickers after being purchased at retail stores in the Miami area. The ELN is on the State Department’s foreign terror watch list. Yet, like many other underground armies around the world, it buys its weapons in one of the world’s freest arms markets. “The United States has for many years been a warehouse, a shopping center, if you will, for firearms,” says retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (AFT) resident agent in charge Daniel McBride, “because of the ease of acquisition, not just in the state of Florida but typically throughout the United States. We are a very easy place from which to obtain firearms for transshipment back home.”
Law enforcement officials describe the United States as a one-stop shop for the guns sought by terrorists, mercenaries and international criminals of all stripes. And September 11 has not changed that in any significant way. In fact, Attorney General John Ashcroft has refused to permit the use of gun purchase records to track crimes, a practice that the FBI had previously used and that conceivably could help to identify terrorists. Nor did Ashcroft propose closing gun loopholes as part of the USA Patriot Act. The result of the lax US system, says McBride, is “an ongoing cycle” in which weapons bought here end up fueling violence abroad, and in which America is regarded as the firearms “shopping center for the world.”
Lobster Air and Gun Land
The story of a ragtag South Florida outfit called Lobster Air International illustrates just how easy US gun purchases can be. In the summer of 1998 Stephen Jorgensen began buying the first of what were eventually more than 800 MAK-90 semiautomatic rifles at a store called Gun Land in Kissimmee, Florida. He did not have a resale permit–known as a Federal Firearms License, or FFL–and he was not required to present one. But Jorgensen wasn’t stockpiling the guns for his personal use; he was taking them to Opa-Locka airport near Miami and loading them aboard a light airplane headed for airstrips in Venezuela and Colombia, via Haiti.
Jorgensen’s South American clients originally wanted AK-47s, but in the United States, the fully automatic AK-47 can be purchased from a dealer only with a Class 3 permit, which is difficult to obtain. The AK was modified in 1990 to get around the California Assault Weapons Ban–hence MAK-90, or “Modified AK 1990.” It is virtually identical to the AK-47 but costs only $200 to $300, compared with $1,000 to $3,000 for a Russian-made AK-47. It is exempt from the national Assault Weapons Ban, enacted after the California ban, because it has slight alterations that give it a hunting-rifle appearance. Jorgensen, a hefty man with an easygoing manner, says the distinction is absurd. “These weapons happened to be a loophole because they didn’t have a pistol grip on the stock. They had a thumbhole. How ridiculous!” The MAK-90 can use the same caliber bullet as the AK-47, and it can be converted to fully automatic with rudimentary mechanical skills; a number of websites offer kits and instructions.
The smuggling operation began when a lieutenant colonel of the Venezuelan Air Force asked Rafael Ceruelos if he knew anyone who could buy guns. Ceruelos, of Cuban origin, is a self-described import-export businessman who had already been doing business with the colonel, selling him aircraft parts through connections he had with an aircraft broker from Texas. Ceruelos speaks in a raspy voice, a more sophisticated version of Al Pacino’s gruff Tony Montana character from Scarface. He likes to use words like “friggin'” a lot. He says that he just wanted to keep his clients happy.