Miami seems more and more like the Casablanca of movie legend.
This month, a Palestinian man and a Cuban migrant were charged in an FBI counter-terrorism probe with plotting to buy hundreds of stolen assault rifles, high-tech bombs and remote-control detonators to ship to the West Bank.
Shortly before that, Miami Beach arms wunderkind Efraim Diveroli — already convicted of selling banned Chinese-made munitions to the Pentagon — was arrested on new firearms charges in Brevard County after he allegedly tried to import rounds of ammunition from South Korea.
And two years ago, a ring of foreigners and businesses was charged with illegally supplying electronic parts to Iran via South Florida for explosives that could be used to target American soldiers in Iraq.
The disparate cases are among dozens of South Florida prosecutions alleging illegal arms trafficking, weapons exports, embargo violations, and shipments of "dual-use" military and commercial technology — a sign of heightened federal enforcement in the post 9/11 era.
Known as an international marketplace for drugs and money laundering since the days of Miami Vice, the region has expanded into a viable gateway for arms smuggling — not only to Latin America but also to the Middle East and Far East.
Federal agencies, accustomed for decades to battling shadowy drug cartels in South America, quickly adapted to weapons investigations. They've been deploying the same crime-fighting techniques — government informants, undercover agents, tape recordings and Internet searches — to make cases.
Three years ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement established a bunker in Fort Lauderdale for probing illegal arms trafficking, generating more prosecutions in South Florida.
"The investigations are not just focused on the smuggling of arms out of the Port of Miami, Port Everglades or Miami International Airport," said Anthony Mangione, special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Miami.
"We're focusing on these international arms brokers with laundry lists of weapons and explosives. These guys operate in the shadows, and it takes a lot to draw them out."
In 2007, the Justice Department, recognizing the proliferation of illegal arms exports and related security threats, launched a plan to coordinate investigations, training and prosecutions. They also began pushing for more criminal cases throughout the country, beyond the traditional hot spots of large coastal cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and New York.