Miami Herald

September 30, 1987

Customs: Computers on boat may be linked to smuggling network



The U.S. Customs Service is investigating possible links between two men caught ferrying four computer systems in Bahamian waters and an international network smuggling high-technology equipment into Communist countries, a federal agent said Tuesday.

"They fit the profile of someone who would be the last link in a network," said Customs agent Jim Kilfoil. Possible links to a larger smuggling network are "subject to investigation," he said.

Smuggling operations specializing "in computer and weapons technology equipment ship millions of dollars worth of high-tech gear from Miami to Communist countries every year, said Pat O'Brien, special agent in charge of the Miami Customs office.

"You're dealing with professional smugglers who are just as good at sending things out as narcotics smugglers are at bringing things in," O'Brien said.

Frequently, he said, the smugglers trade their high-tech contraband for drugs they import to the United States.

The 12 Customs agents assigned to the 2-year-old Operation Exodus team, based in Miami, have busted 10 high-tech smuggling rings and arrested about 30 people, Kilfoil said. Ongoing investigations have targeted a number of Miami-based smuggling networks violating the Export Administration Act by shipping more than $1,000 worth of equipment without a license, he said.

"There are several, and they are very sophisticated," he said.

To get the equipment to Cuba and other Communist countries, the rings often use complicated

shipping routes through third countries such as Panama and a series of middlemen to obscure the destination, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald.

Miami's increasing prominence as an international gateway makes it popular with smugglers trying to hide the shipments, he said.

For example, Watts-Fitzgerald said, agents recently intercepted an illegal shipment of computer hardware through Miami.

"The only reason for shipping to Miami was that they were trying to submerge that shipment among thousands of others," he said.

Kilfoil said the smugglers also use boaters and pilots, "just like you have mules in narcotics operations," to deliver contraband directly to foreign ports.

The U.S. Coast Guard stopped two men aboard the 31-foot speedboat Excalibur Friday near the Cay Sal Bank. A boarding party found four complete computer systems including monitors, keyboards, disk drives and printers.

The said they were headed to Nassau from Miami.

The men gave their names as Rafael Otero, 26, of 11350 SW 40th St., and Arturo C. Montane, 46, of 11191 SW Seventh St., said Customs agent John Howe.

Tuesday night, investigators were still trying to confirm the men's identities and whether they were legal resident aliens who entered the United States during the Mariel boatlift, as they said. The two also said they were self-employed- auto mechanics who work together out of their homes.

The two men remained in federal custody at the Monroe County Jail Tuesday night:

O'Brien said he could not discuss the details of an ongoing case, but possible links to a smuggling group could not be overlooked.

"Never have we found these people standing alone," he said.