They're considered one of the most impressive of imports, the most refined of relaxations, the most vaunted of vices. They're Cuban cigars, and they have long been counted among the best cigars in the world. But if you live in the United States, you can't buy them.
Thanks to the trade embargo the U.S. government imposed on Cuba in 1962, Cuban cigars — and all products from our Communist neighbor to the south — are considered contraband, and bringing them into the United States is illegal.
Despite this restriction, however, an increasing number of cigar aficionados in the United States are finding it easier than ever to smuggle the illicit cigars into this country. And they're not using hollowed-out books or cigarette boats or hidden airstrips. They're using the Internet.
"Buying Cuban cigars over the Internet is extremely easy," one anonymous Cuban cigar smoker told CyberCrime. "It's as easy as buying books on Amazon.com."
That's because other countries don't have trade embargoes against Cuba. In past decades those smokers with the longing for a good, hearty Cuban cigar had to travel outside U.S. borders to purchase a banned stogie, but now all those smokers have to do is fire up their computers.
Online Stogie Stores
Type the phrase "Cuban cigars" into any search engine, and you'll find hundreds of Web sites, online retailers, and clubs that sell Cuban cigars over the Internet, many of which will ship to the United States.
The Cuban Cigars Club, for instance, advertises on the front page of its Web site, "We deliver to your door anywhere in the world, including [the] USA." Club Havana claims on its Web site, "We deliver to customers in Canada, the United States, and around the world." Club Havana's site even points out that its store in White Rock, British Columbia, is just "a short two-hour drive north of Seattle, Washington."
Stephen Mawdsley operates one of these foreign cigar retailers, and he claims that approximately 90 percent of the customers who shop at his Casa de Malahato in Victoria, British Columbia, are from the United States. He also estimates that he does most of his business online.
"You give them your credit card, you tell them which ones you want, and you close the deal," our anonymous cigar smoker said of such Web sites. "Within a week or two weeks, your cigars arrive in a package, either [by] U.S. mail or by courier."
Sites Are Untouchable…
U.S. law enforcement agents can do nothing to stop these Web sites, since they operate in countries where U.S. laws do not apply.
"Unless there's some treaty with that country that says we'll cooperate on this issue, putting an obligation on that country to go out and squash that operation, then there's absolutely nothing" that can be done, U.S. Customs supervisory inspector Mike Freatis said. "If it's legal in that country, then it's legal."
…But Not the Smugglers
But that doesn't make it legal in this country, Freatis points out. The penalties for smuggling Cuban cigars into the United States include, in addition to confiscation of the cigars, civil fines of up to $55,000 per violation and, in certain cases, criminal prosecution that could lead to higher fines or imprisonment.
Freatis and Customs officials at the U.S. Customs mail inspection facility in Oakland, Calif., and at eight other inspection facilities around the country, inspect packages arriving in the United States for contraband goods, including Cuban cigars. In 1999, U.S. Customs agents confiscated nearly 300,000 of the illegal stogies. In 2000, Customs mounted a major raid, sweeping through upscale Manhattan restaurants and clubs like Patroon and 21 Club, and arresting managers and patrons alike.
Struggling to Stop the Flow
But Freatis guesses that a large number of Cuban cigars are still slipping into the United States despite Customs' enforcement efforts. With more than 3 million packages being sorted each month at the Oakland Customs facility alone, it is impossible for agents to stop all the cigar smugglers.
So, as long as the embargo is maintained, as long as there are people in the United States who choose to smoke Cuban cigars, and as long as there are online retailers in other countries willing to ship those cigars to the United States, Cuban cigars will continue to make their way past Freatis and his colleagues into this country.
"I don't think the Cuban government is benefiting by my buying a few boxes of cigars a year," our anonymous smoker asserted. "And I don't think anybody is being hurt by my breaking the law, so I just choose to break it."
This article is based on original reporting by CyberCrime segment producer Jon Taylor.