Aficionado Verschiedenes

Cigar Smuggling

Millionen von Habanos landen jährlich trotz Embargo in den USA. hat 1999 die Story „¡Holy Cohiba!“ veröffentlicht. Die Geschichte von Schmugglern und verhältnisverblödeten Behörden liest sich noch heute absolut interessant:

¡Holy Cohiba!
Federal agents smoke out an insidious Bay Area smuggling ring as part of their ceaseless efforts to keep our streets safe from illegal Cuban cigars

The luxurious Hotel Nacional overlooks the entrance to Havana Bay on the north shore of Cuba. The twin-spired landmark has hosted a formidable array of celebrity guests since it opened in 1930, Winston Churchill, Ava Gardner, and Johnny Weissmuller among them.

On a balmy day in June 1996, three lesser-known travelers found themselves in conversation at the hotel’s palm tree-lined pool. Each of the three men was from Northern California. Each visited Cuba frequently. And each had a certain mischievous gleam in his eye, a hint of pirate blood that said he wasn’t above slipping something past the law.

The first, an attorney, considered himself a connoisseur of Cuban tobacco, and approached his hobby with great thoroughness. He cultivated friendships at Havana’s legendary cigar factories, and when it came time to return to his wife and family in Sacramento, he always snuck a few boxes of cigars through U.S. Customs.

The second, a real estate developer from Atherton, smoked only an occasional cigar himself, but had developed a successful business smuggling them from Havana into the U.S. and selling them to well-heeled aficionados.

The third, a son of wealth with time on his hands, treaded water in the Hotel Nacional pool as the three men talked. He was already working with the real estate developer, smuggling loads of cigars through customs 25, 50, or 100 boxes at a time.

By the conversation’s end, common ground had been discovered. Each man smelled opportunity, and sensed that the future held a potentially profitable convergence of mutual interests. The three travelers shook hands, exchanged phone numbers, and promised to stay in touch.

None of them could have anticipated that, before long, one would betray the others to save himself. Over cigars.

As Portugal is known for port wine, and Germany for beer, Cuba is known for producing the ultimate cigar. The Vuelta Abajo region, about 100 miles west of Havana, provides the world’s best climate and soil for cigar tobacco. Every major cigar company has 19th-century origins in Cuba, and after the U.S. slapped a trade embargo on Cuba , most opened factories in U.S.-friendly countries like the Dominican Republic. In the early 1960s, Fidel Castro even founded his own Cohiba brand, now the most recognizable name in cigars.

The U.S. government seems completely high-strung in how it deals with Cuban cigars. That’s because the U.S. is completely high-strung in how it deals with Cuba itself. The relationship between the two countries is unlike any other in the civilized world.

Things grew frosty after Castro’s revolutionary army overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Apprehension over a Communist enclave so close to U.S. shores led to the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, which was followed by the missile crisis. After President Kennedy faced down Russia over that one, he decided to put financial pressure on Castro by placing an embargo against all Cuban goods, including the world-renowned cigars (but only after Kennedy assistant Pierre Salinger safely procured 1,200 of JFK’s favorite Upmann petits).

With subtle variations added by Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, the embargo has remained in place. The U.S. still considers Cuba an official enemy, on a short-list that includes North Korea, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan.

Thirty-plus years of sanctions have squeezed the island dry. Families are allowed one roll of toilet paper and one bar of soap per month. A doctor makes the equivalent of $20 a month. Cubans who moved to the States regularly send money to their families left behind.

Through all this, Havana has taken on the personality of a demented border town, where a suitcase full of cash speaks loudest in an aggressive black market economy. Businesses prefer U.S. dollars over Cuban currency. Locals roam the streets, dodging vintage Chevys and beat-up Soviet sedans, lugging sacks of fresh lobsters, one for a dollar. Families rent their homes to visitors for $20 a night, including dinner. Teenage girls look for middle-aged male tourists to buy them dinner and purchase other services.

U.S. citizens trying to visit Cuba get little encouragement from their own government. Only journalists, researchers, and others approved on a case-by-case basis by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control are legally allowed to go. Those authorized by the OFAC to visit can spend only $183 per day for living expenses, and bring only $100 worth of Cuban goods back into the States. Violating the rules can bring up to 12 years in prison, and over $1 million in corporate fines, or $250,000 in individual fines.

But telling an American he’s not supposed to do something is as good as telling him he is required to do so. Yankee tourists regularly slip into Cuba through neutral countries like Mexico or Canada, hiding their visits by intentionally forgetting to have their passports stamped. They hit the island for sightseeing and scuba diving, then figure out how and what they’re going to sneak back into the States.

Mostly, it’s cigars.

Fetching $25 to $50 apiece in the U.S., Cuban cigars have always been an indulgence of the wealthy. In 1997, California Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from Martinez, stood on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and proposed exempting Cuban cigars from the embargo. Miller passionately cited the inherent hypocrisy of politicians who earnestly back the law, while laughing it up in rooms filled with fine Cuban cigar smoke. His proposal prompted spirited debate among colleagues, but ultimately went nowhere.

While the nation’s recent cigar craze may have waned a bit, consumption continues to grow. According to the Cigar Association of America, 360 million premium cigars were imported and smoked by Americans in 1998. That same year U.S. Customs made 7,000 seizures of Cuban cigars, confiscating about 300,000 (2 percent of which came through the Bay Area).

Cuban cigars are not cocaine, or AK-47 rifles, or mail-order brides, or top-secret government files. They’re just tobacco, completely legal to bring into any country in the world except the U.S.

But if agents at SFO airport find Cuban cigars in your possession, they confiscate them, and send them to an incinerator in Oakland. At other ports of entry, such as LAX airport, agents take a pair of scissors and destroy the cigars on the spot.

Despite the government’s best efforts, the embargo has failed miserably. Out of the over 100 million cigars produced annually by the Republic of Cuba, an estimated 5 million to 10 million of them enter the U.S. illegally.

Obviously, somebody is bringing all of those cigars into this country.

Bay Area real estate developer Joe Hybl sits in a Thai restaurant in Redwood City, not far from his father’s auto parts shop, where he now works. The terms of Hybl’s federal probation forbid him from going anywhere else. Until two years ago, he had never been arrested, except for an old pot dealing charge back in the 1970s. Hybl wants to talk. He thinks his story might make a great book, or movie.

Hybl started in the Cuban cigar smuggling business, he says, after getting burned for $200,000 on an Arizona hotel investment. At the gym one day, he was explaining his financial situation to a couple of buddies, including a pilot for Cargolux airlines. Talk about the country’s fetish for high-end cigars arose, and someone suggested that maybe they could make some dough on the Cubans. Hybl and the pilot agreed to do a little importation. The pilot would purchase a couple of boxes of cigars in a neutral country and mail them to Hybl, who would sell them to U.S. clients.

The plan worked fine, but it was a lot of effort to turn only $100 profit apiece, and Hybl couldn’t keep up with demand from customers. Though he had traveled extensively, Hybl had never been to Cuba. It was time to pay the country a visit.

He called up a few friends, including an old Bay Area buddy named Dave Lampert, and suggested there was money to be made in Cuban tobacco. Lampert was no stranger to the concept of clandestine commerce. He had spent one year in Lompoc Federal Prison on a pot dealing charge. He was leery. If anything went wrong, Lampert told Hybl, they could really be screwed. There’s no U.S. Embassy in Cuba to bail out U.S. citizens in trouble. Lampert turned Hybl down.

In April 1996, Hybl left for Cuba with two friends who spoke Spanish. They blew a bunch of money, chased girls, and brought back 15 boxes of cigars. Hybl told Lampert it was unbelievable fun. The next trip to Cuba, Lampert was in.

Hybl had never smoked cigars before, but like a professional salesman, he had to know his product. He studied the nuances of cigar culture, and visited farms to understand the process of cultivation and manufacture. Being a businessman, he quickly discovered less expensive channels of supply. He learned that the factories and Castro’s official Habanos stores aren’t the only sources for cigars. Factory workers steal tobacco from their employers, take it home, roll cigars themselves, and pack them into stolen boxes. They slap on their own labels, and stamp each box with an official factory stamp, also stolen.

These forgeries, or falsiosos, are sold on the street, often right in front of the same cigar factory from which the tobacco was stolen. The fakes are frequently so good that you have to examine the box closely to see the difference, and Hybl found that a box of falsiosos costing $50 or $60 on the streets of Havana could sell for $600 in the States.

Hybl learned that the Spanish are the world’s top buyers and consumers of Cuban cigars, so he worked out a deal with a friend in Barcelona to stockpile boxes for him. And if Hybl was really pressed to fulfill orders, he picked up counterfeits in Mexico. They weren’t nearly as good, but a typical yuppie client wouldn’t know the difference.

Hybl quickly discovered which brands were most popular with his customers. Everybody wanted the Cohiba Robustos. Even in Cuba, Castro’s brand was expensive, but the price made them even more impressive. A $300 box of Robustos was worth $1,000 in the U.S. The Cohiba Lanceros also sold well, as did the Montecristos No. 2 and No. 3 and the Romeo & Julietas in tubes.

He also learned that cigar fans were obsessive about their hobby. Books of Cuban cigar labels that he bought for $300 in Cuba could be resold for $3,000. Ashtrays were also popular, particularly the Cohiba 30th anniversary edition. It is 2 feet long, inlaid with gold, with a nice logo. Hybl picked them up for $50 and turned them around for a cool thousand.

„They made only 2,500 in the world. These were very special,“ Hybl shrugs. „They ate it up.“ But he also knew that Americans were fickle about their trends, and estimated he had a two-year window of interest. He had to move fast.

Hybl began traveling to Cuba with Lampert and others regularly, sometimes as often as once a month. Each time he took 30 or 40 grand in cash, bought up as many cigars as he could find, and stashed them in stores and hotel rooms until it was time to fly home through Mexico. By law, you can bring only one box of cigars from Cuba into Mexico, but it wasn’t much of a problem, Hybl says. Especially with a friend like Xavier Abrego.

Abrego, a gregarious 6-foot computer engineer from Mexico, wore cowboy boots and a big belt buckle, and liked to party. Abrego knew people in Mexico’s government, and assured Hybl that Mexican Customs agents were not a problem. You simply paid them.

Hybl flew cigars into a handful of Mexican cities, and eventually landed them in Tijuana. Abrego spread the cash around, and Hybl’s shipments were never stopped. Methods varied. Occasionally, Hybl and his confederates stuffed the goods in huge suitcases that held 50 boxes apiece. Sometimes they built wooden crates wrapped in pink ribbon, which the bribed Mexican Customs officials were instructed to overlook.

Eventually, Hybl developed a system for avoiding customs entirely. When the bags arrived at the Tijuana airport, baggage handlers were paid to engage in a little sleight of hand. They would take Hybl’s bags — which had come in via an international flight — and mix them in with the luggage arriving on a domestic flight from Guadalajara. That way, the bags did not have to go through customs. Hybl and his friends would sit drinking in the airport bar, watching their bags pass through safely, and laughing at the other shifty-eyed smugglers standing nervously in line.

They’d walk through the check-in, as if they just flew in from Guadalajara, and meet their bags at the far end of the airport. Then they’d pile everything into a waiting van, drive to the house of a friend of Abrego’s, and toast another success.

Once the goods were safely in Tijuana, Abrego arranged to slip them across the U.S. border a few boxes at a time, mostly using friends who drove delivery trucks. Hybl rented warehouse space in San Diego as a staging area, where all the boxes were taken and inventoried. From there, it was no problem moving the cigars up the state to his house in Atherton.

Hybl would hand-deliver boxes to clients in the Bay Area, including, he says, restaurants, tobacco shops, attorneys, judges, and professional athletes. For clients out of state, he simply shipped the boxes through the mail.

Things didn’t always work perfectly, though.

On one trip, Hybl and his confederates couldn’t get a flight into Cuba from Cancun right away, so they bribed two Cuban airline pilots $500 to start up a plane and fly them in immediately. The only passengers were the cigar smugglers, smoking and drinking with the flight crew.

Occasionally, their contacts in Mexican Customs would be switched to other jobs, and they’d have to befriend a new crew. And sometimes, they barely escaped arrest.

Hybl remembers one night at a rented house in Havana, sitting on about 80 boxes, when three of his team didn’t return from a run to purchase falsiosos. Hybl’s pals finally showed up, accompanied by the equivalent of the Cuban CIA. They had just come from the police station, where officials had taken their $7,000 in cash, spread it out on the table, and shouted, „This is stealing from Castro!“

The officials wanted to inspect every box in the house and check receipts. If a box didn’t have an accompanying receipt, it wasn’t purchased at an official Habanos store, and was therefore illegal. While someone took the agents upstairs to show them the legal boxes, Hybl and the others quickly hustled boxes of counterfeits into the garage, which had already been searched. The Cubans left, satisfied.

Another time, Lampert recalls walking through a run-down section of Havana with two locals, headed to buy boxes of falsiosos. It was the middle of the night, and there were no streetlights.

„What the fuck am I doing?“ he thought, as he stumbled over the uneven streets. „No one knows I’m in this country. This is way too deep, just to get cigars.“

He ended up in a small room of a house, with two big guys and a woman. Only the woman spoke English, and asked him: „So you want to buy some cigars, huh? Shut the door!“

They offered him something to drink. He sipped a Coke. He kept thinking of the scene in the movie Scarface, where Al Pacino’s friend got cut up with a chain saw. Lampert was in a bad spot, but he had made it this far. He had to do the deal.

Lampert told his hosts that he liked to buy cigars from the people, rather than Castro. They produced three boxes of counterfeits. Lampert could tell they weren’t very good. But he gave them 300 bucks, all the money he had.

He walked home, carrying the boxes in a paper bag. As he passed in front of the upscale Hotel Habana Libre, he heard whistles. He kept walking. Three military guys suddenly grabbed his arms, and asked to look in his bag. Lampert tried to explain, but they didn’t understand his English. A crowd gathered to watch the scene unfold.

The soldiers escorted Lampert to the steps of the hotel. He knew the bellboy, and yelled at him to come and translate. „I want to see the receipts,“ the police kept saying. Through the translator, Lampert said that he didn’t have any receipts, but that he had bought the cigars that day in an official store. The officials didn’t believe him. By now the crowd had grown to a hundred or so, gathered around Lampert and the soldiers.

Suddenly, like a scene from a movie, an old man in his 70s pedaled up on a bicycle. The crowd parted to give him room. The bellboy explained to Lampert that this man was an expert, and the soldiers were going to have him look at the cigars to determine their origin.

The crowd grew silent. A sweating Lampert pulled out a box, opened it, and handed it to the old man. The expert looked at the cigars. He asked to see another box, and inspected its contents. He looked up at Lampert, and then looked at the soldiers, and said:

„No falsiosos.“

The mob burst into cheers, and Lampert was free to go. The soldiers believed the cigars were authentic, and therefore legal. For whatever reason, the old man’s proclamation was incorrect. The cigars were definitely falsiosos. But Lampert wasn’t going to correct anyone. „Whatever this man said, was my life,“ he now says.

If things could get problematic in Cuba, they were about to get even worse in California. At the end of 1996, the noose began to tighten around the neck of Joe Hybl.

The scope of Cuban cigar smuggling was growing so large by the late 1990s that U.S. Customs felt it was time to take a stand. Smuggling was hurting the sales of legitimate cigars from Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The government needed to make a high-profile bust, says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Johnny L. Griffin III, to send a message to smugglers and traffickers. If a precedent was established, the pursuit of cigar smugglers would spread to other parts of the country. U.S. Customs started gathering intelligence in the Bay Area.

Their digging led them straight to an attorney in Sacramento, a man who had once lounged beside the pool at the Hotel Nacional striking up a friendship with two strangers from the Bay Area.

The attorney had first visited Cuba on a 10-day vacation in February 1996. On the trip back, he brought a few boxes of cigars. He revisited Cuba on occasion, and began sneaking 10 or 15 boxes through customs each time. Some he smoked, others he sold, capitalizing on the insatiable demand.

In June 1996, the attorney happened to meet Hybl and Lampert at the hotel poolside. After returning to Sacramento, the attorney — whose name has been stricken from all court files — pondered the idea of going into business with the two smugglers. Hybl seemed like a fun guy, sharp and on the ball. A few weeks later, the attorney called him up. Hybl was leaving for Cuba that evening, but they agreed to chat in the future. Over the summer, they talked smuggling over the phone. The attorney listened as Hybl explained how he did it, and how profitable it was. Hybl told him „people are buying the shit out of these cigars,“ all over San Francisco and Las Vegas.

The two stayed in touch and, according to Hybl, the attorney even did some unrelated legal work for him. When Hybl asked the attorney to sell a couple of boxes, the attorney said sure. Hybl fronted him some cigars, and the attorney peddled them throughout the Sacramento business community. Everybody was making a nice chunk of change.

In mid-November, the two men met up again at the Hotel Nacional and discussed the future. When they returned to the Bay Area, the attorney told Hybl he’d met a new client who wanted 15 boxes. Hybl invited him down to the house in Atherton to pick up the cigars.

The attorney walked in, and found the home filled with cigar boxes. Some were stuffed into duffel bags, others were inside plastic insulated coolers, with a cup of water to keep them fresh. People were coming and going. One of Hybl’s friends dropped by and picked up $10,000 in cash. The attorney picked out 15 boxes, and Hybl said he’d take payment later.

The attorney returned home to Sacramento, stashing the boxes in his room full of prized humidors, Cuban ashtrays, and other paraphernalia. The next night, as he sat down to dinner with his family, the knock on the door came. The attorney opened his front door, and standing on his step were the last people he wanted to interrupt his meal — five U.S. Customs agents holding 9mm automatics, and two others in plain clothes, waving a federal search warrant.

The attorney had just become a trophy in the country’s first and largest federal investigation into Cuban cigar smuggling, code-named Operation Smoke Signal. Initial intelligence conducted in Northern California had led authorities to Sacramento restaurants and luxury car dealerships, which had been buying Cuban cigars from the attorney. Investigators believed he could lead them to the biggest cigar ring ever busted in the U.S. „We heard other names,“ says Johnny Griffin, who eventually prosecuted the case. „We didn’t know their roles.“

The attorney glumly watched agents haul approximately 900 cigars from his home, worth about $10,000, plus his treasured cigar accessories. They explained to him that, unless he cooperated, his life would become complete hell. And within a few days, he agreed to become U.S. Customs‘ first cigar snitch.

In exchange for introducing undercover agents to Joe Hybl, the attorney would not be charged with any crime. He would have to wear a wire, record phone calls, and continue pretending to do business with Hybl. He would be known in legal documents only as CI — confidential informant.

The attorney is on the phone from Sacramento, and he’s worried. He told his side of this story once before, anonymously, to a cigar magazine, and he thought he was through with it. But now it’s going to come out in the media again, and he sure as hell doesn’t need his name trotted out as the snitch.

„How’d you get my number?“ he asks quietly. A lawyer by profession, he chooses his words carefully. But not this time, because he seems nervous.

„How’d you associate me with the case — supposedly? You need to identify your sources to me, because as far as I’m concerned, I’m a confidential informant — or, this person, whoever it is, is a confidential informant for the government.“

He refuses to discuss anything further, but court documents outline his betrayal.

A few days before Christmas 1996, the attorney returned to Hybl’s house in Atherton to pick up more cigars. This time, the attorney was accompanied by a tall man with a beard, supposedly a boat captain who was looking for cigars to sell to his wealthy clients. Hybl shook hands, not realizing the captain was an undercover U.S. Customs agent, and that this customer was wired.

A price was struck for 20 boxes. Hybl asked a friend who was also present, computer consultant Jack Bramy, to double-check the number of cigars and price. The agent handed over a down payment of $600 — in taxpayers‘ money — and left with the 20 boxes in white plastic bags.

For the next few weeks, the captain and Hybl had phone conversations, all secretly taped, about the possibilities of smuggling cigars into Florida by charter boat. Around the same time, Hybl flew Bramy to Spain for a week, with instructions to bring back 14 boxes through Atlanta, potentially worth thousands of dollars. But customs tipped off officials at the Atlanta airport, and when Bramy brought his bags through, the cigars were seized. Bramy was released, and his name was entered into a Treasury Department database, which meant from then on he would be subject to search every time he went through customs.

Eventually, the captain called Hybl and asked him to come up to Benicia. He was helping a buddy work on a boat, and they could talk more about the idea of smuggling into Florida. Hybl arrived with his girlfriend and bookkeeper, Julie Chatard. The captain brought along a stocky, dark-haired friend of his named Marshall Heeger, and Heeger’s female companion.

The yacht was actually a government undercover vessel, bristling with sound and video recording devices. Significantly, the waters where it was anchored fell within the federal government’s Eastern District of California, a jurisdiction that customs agents felt was more politically conservative than San Francisco, and where it might be easier to prosecute cigar smugglers.

Marshall Heeger wasn’t just an undercover agent, he was the head of Operation Smoke Signal. In his career with customs, he’d chased kiddie porn, drugs, weapons smuggling, and money laundering. For months he had been poking around the Bay Area cigar scene, going to bars and restaurants, chatting people up about Cubans. He had led the raid on the attorney’s house in Sacramento, and now he was going head to head with Joe Hybl, the alleged kingpin of the big Bay Area cigar syndicate.

Hybl produced boxes of cigars from ice chests, and Heeger and the captain both purchased some.

Hybl now says the meeting on the boat was the first time he suspected something wasn’t right. He couldn’t sleep that night, kept thinking about it. The buyers kept saying they wanted to buy 50 boxes total. Fifty, 50, 50. What was up with the number 50? But the guy’s name was Marshall Heeger. He couldn’t be a cop. You couldn’t make that one up.

Over the next few months, agents kept calling Hybl, but he was running short of cash and cigars because he had fronted people too many boxes, and nobody was paying up. And his last shipment was delayed. When Hybl couldn’t come through right away, agents stopped pestering him, and moved on to his friend Xavier Abrego.

Abrego was only too happy to help them, and said he was starting up his own operation. He could get them the best quality cigars, not the „hanky panky“ counterfeits favored by Hybl. For their purchase, the agents lured Abrego onto another boat in the Sacramento area, and caught the deal on videotape.

Heeger asked Abrego if his wife thought what he was doing was illegal. Abrego said he told her it wasn’t really illegal. „It’s not drugs,“ he said. „This is an opportunity.“

In mid-April 1997, the government decided it had everything it wanted to issue indictments against five people — Joe Hybl, Julie Chatard, Jack Bramy, Xavier Abrego, and Abrego’s wife, Kim Ferm.

The morning of April 17, federal agents moved in for what Johnny Griffin calls „D-Day,“ the grand finale to a year of investigation. Early in the morning, an unmarked car parked outside Chatard’s home in Belmont. A squad car pulled up, the cop inside curious about why the unmarked car was parked in the neighborhood. Realizing a big U.S. Customs bust was imminent, the patrol car moved on, but Hybl and his girlfriend had seen it out the window.

The phone rang and rang, but Hybl didn’t answer. The Caller ID kept displaying phone numbers that he knew were bad news. Outside, the federal agents were hamstrung: They were waiting for a federal judge from the Northern District in San Francisco to walk into his office and sign an arrest warrant so they could move in. The judge usually got to his office around 8 a.m. The agents checked their watches. The wait continued.

Suddenly, agents saw smoke drifting out of the chimney. Hybl and Chatard had removed the bands from all the Cuban cigars, and were hurriedly burning them in the fireplace. The customs team knocked on the door, and rushed in. Hybl and Chatard were arrested. Agents confiscated burnt labels and ashes, coolers full of cigars, books, ashtrays, lighters, clippers, and other cigar goodies.

Abrego and his wife were arrested the next day when they delivered 64 boxes to an agent waiting in a Sacramento hotel room.

Hybl, Chatard, Bramy, Abrego, and Ferm were all charged with conspiracy and with violation of the Trading With the Enemy Act, a dusty law dating back to World War I, which had never before been used to prosecute cigar smugglers. Word of the bust immediately spread through cigar circles. It was unprecedented.

Lawyers were called, and bails were posted, except for Abrego. Unable to afford counsel, Abrego would spend the next six months behind bars. The court complaint against the smugglers ran 65 single-spaced pages long. Heeger’s summary of the undercover operation ran over 60 pages. The indictment was 12 pages.

All over cigars.

Jan. 30, 1998, was a boisterous first day in court. Chatard’s attorney, San Francisco lawyer Harris Taback, immediately challenged the validity of the embargo itself. He asked the court who really was the enemy here. Who had an interest in the cigars at issue? Did Cuba, or a Cuban national, have any interest in the cigar transaction? If so, what were their names? When, if ever, was the interest of Cuba or a Cuban national extinguished?

But the court ignored Taback’s efforts to debate international policy in a smuggling case. The defendants were caught red-handed doing something they knew was illegal, and the charges against them stood.

Legal wrangling soon erupted over the issue of whether the confiscated cigars were actually from Cuba. If they weren’t, had any law been broken? (Hybl proudly says that most of his confiscated cigars were actually Mexican counterfeits.)

The federal government flew in a cigar expert from Florida to establish the provenance of the confiscated goods. According to Griffin, the expert performed several analyses on the cigars, taking them apart and visually examining the tobacco quality. The expert then smoked a sampling of the evidence, and proclaimed that some of them were in fact Cuban cigars.

As the case progressed toward a possible jury trial in April 1998, the federal government and the attorney from Sacramento cooperated in putting together a heavily one-sided article about the case for a cigar magazine. U.S. Customs started making similar cigar smuggling busts in New York, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

Ultimately, Operation Smoke Signal served only as a ceremonial chest-puffing warning to cigar smugglers. After all the time and money spent, the defendants all changed their pleas to guilty and received only probation, with Hybl also fined $38,000 in back taxes.

Throughout the legal process, the mood was strangely light. Hybl attorney Frederick Remer remembers guys in the courtroom jokingly asking him if he could get them Cuban cigars. Bramy says members of the prosecution came up and patted his chest, saying, „Hey Bramy, got any cigars?“

„It was a fun case,“ says former prosecutor Griffin. „It was charting new territory. Mr. Hybl’s a great guy. Bramy was fine. The defense attorneys and I all got along together. The big issue was this law out there that says you can’t do it.“

A veteran drug defense lawyer from the East Bay, Remer is less jovial.

„I’ve seen more time spent on this than my major drug cases. Are they out of their goddamn tree? In 28 years, I have never even heard of [Trading With the Enemy] unless it was a time of war. You see ‚Cohiba‘ on ashtrays sold in stores at Fisherman’s Wharf. This case was ramrodded as a test case. [Hybl] fit a high enough volume profile. They wanted to send a fucking message. You don’t punish for the crime at hand, you punish by example. I’d estimate roughly, they spent half a million dollars investigating this case.“

Now that it’s all over, Remer and Griffin both admit that many, many members of the legal profession smoke fine cigars that have had the labels removed.

„Most judges would laugh at this thing,“ continues Remer. „I talked to a couple of FBI agents, they laughed themselves sick over this one.“

The defense insists the case was an obvious stepping stone for agent Marshall Heeger, and accuse him of showboating. Heeger traveled all over the Bay Area, buying hundreds of dollars‘ worth of cigars. The government even flew him to Spain. After the arrests, he posed for press photographs, sitting in front of Hybl’s confiscated cigars like a hunter with his bighorn sheep. (Heeger has since been promoted to a position in Moscow, and could not be reached for comment.)

The prosecution, naturally, believes the time and expense were justified. „I don’t think the government was heavy-handed,“ says Griffin. „I would say this: Going into the investigation, Marshall knew it was an uphill climb. He worked on this case so much that he didn’t take it personal. But it was his career case, if you will.“

Now that Griffin is in private practice, would he ever defend a cigar smuggling case brought by the federal government? „If they see my name on the other side, beware!“

Sixty or so people lounge around a back yard in Atherton, a few minutes south of San Francisco. A handful of them dance to a blues band playing „Two Tickets to Paradise.“ A bartender hands a margarita to a young woman in a leopard-print bikini. A helicopter circles overhead, and everyone waves to the pilot.

Joe Hybl, still on probation, turned 44 in late September of this year, and this is his birthday bash.

„If I can’t leave my house, might as well have a party,“ smiles Hybl, his dark, penetrating eyes sweeping the yard. He wears a black T-shirt and white tennis shorts, and looks comfortable, even if he did have to sell two cars and a motor home to pay off his attorneys. A few of his traveling companions are also at the party.

Dave Lampert is happy to talk about his cigar escapades in Cuba. He remembers the first meeting with the attorney on that fateful day out by the Hotel Nacional pool.

„He said he was doing the cigar thing,“ Lampert remembers. „Most guys are. He was into the girls, just like we were.“

„I didn’t want to make money,“ he continues, glancing at a young woman from Mexico City laughing with her friends. „I wanted the adventure.“

Jack Bramy wears a bright yellow T-shirt that says Brazil. He says the only Cuban cigars he liked were the Montecristo Double Coronas, but will never forget his time working as a cigar pack mule, spending a week in Spain. He’d like to be included in an article, if it mentions that he’s 51, he’s handsome and in good health, and looking for a rich woman to take care of him. What irritates him still is that the Sacramento attorney got a free ride.

„The guy’s still practicing law and a member of the bar,“ says Bramy. „That’s just fuckin‘ rude.“

And then girlish squeals come from the other side of the yard, where Joe Hybl, the first man in the United States ever to be convicted for trading cigars with the enemy, is tossed into his own swimming pool.


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