Cuba complains that guns in luggage checked in at Miami airport were not stopped

Miami HeraldApril 25, 2012 

One would think that it would be difficult for any gun, packed in a suitcase checked in at Miami International Airport for a flight to Cuba, to make it all the way to the island.

After all, Cuba is on the U.S. list of countries that support international terrorism, and Miami is home to radical exiles who might want to attack the island. Never mind the U.S. trade embargo, or the law that requires U.S. government permits to export any gun.

Yet, the U.S. State Department has confirmed Havana twice complained of finding such guns in luggage arriving from MIA in 2010. A Miami travel company official said Cuban government officials told her there were six such incidents this year alone.

Regardless of how many times they happened, the previously undisclosed incidents raise questions about security screenings at MIA, the guns’ owners, why they took the guns to Cuba and what happened to the travelers. Yet, they provide few answers.

“I can’t bring a box of cigars from Cuba because of the embargo, but these people are taking guns to Cuba. Sheez!” said the travel company official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Cuban government complained to U.S. officials in 2010 that guns were twice found in luggage that arrived from MIA, but since then “we have not been informed of any other incidents,” said State Department spokesperson William Ostick.

Cuban officials complained that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at MIA had missed the six guns this year, the travel company official said. Five were found when arriving luggage was X-rayed in Havana and the other in eastern Holguín.

TSA Miami spokesperson Sari Koshetz would not comment on details of the Cuba gun cases but noted that “TSA works closely with our Cuban counterparts, as we expand our partnership to provide a high level of mutual transportation security.”

“While I cannot comment on certain procedural specifics for security reasons, TSA carefully applies security measures in accordance with international standards and TSA requirements,” Koshetz added in an email to El Nuevo Herald.

TSA regulations allow firearms to travel as checked-in luggage, but require they be unloaded and locked in hard-sided containers. Ammunition must be packed separately and the guns must be declared to the airline at check-in.

Bags checked in for both domestic and foreign flights are then supposed to pass through screening machines designed to set off alarms when they spot items like guns.

When a screening machine alerts, TSA tries to resolve the reason for the alarm, which involves checking with the airline and tracking down the passenger if, for example, the gun is not packaged properly, according to TSA procedures.

It was not known if the weapons that arrived in Cuba had been declared to the airline at MIA. But any guns declared on foreign-bound flights also must be accompanied by an export license from the U.S. State Department, according to regulations.

The half-century old U.S. trade embargo certainly “does not allow export of guns to Cuba,” U.S. Treasury spokesman John Sullivan wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is in charge of enforcing the embargo.

The Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington D.C. did not reply to requests for comments on this story, and comments from the State Department and TSA left many questions unanswered.

It was unclear whether the MIA screening machines missed or alerted to the guns in luggage checked in for Cuba in 2010 or this year. The two incidents reported by Cuba in 2010 occurred in July and August, according to knowledgeable sources.

And if the Cuban government official’s report to the Miami travel company official of six gun cases this year alone is correct, there has been no explanation of why the island’s government did not complain to the State Department.

Also unclear is what happened to the owners of the guns found in Cuba, where the possession of firearms by anyone other than security force members is illegal and rare, and the attempt to import any weapons would be a major incident.

“We don’t know of any instance in which Cuban authorities have charged U.S. citizens or U.S. residents for bringing firearms,” Ostick said in an email to El Nuevo Herald, declining to provide further details on the gun cases.

Ostick’s comment indicated several possibilities: the gun owners in the 2010 cases were U.S. citizens or residents who were not charged after they were investigated; they were Cuban citizens returning home; or they were citizens of third countries.

The travel company official said she also had no indication that the six gun owners spotted this year were arrested for lengthy periods — another strong indication that the incidents did not involve terror plots.

“I would guess these people were questioned (in Cuba) pretty thoroughly before they were released,” the official added, “but we just don’t know almost anything about these cases. These are just mysteries.”

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