Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How to Smuggle in Cuban Cigars....Legally!

9:00 am - I land at Mexico City airport for my connection back to the USA, silly with fatigue (being unaccustomed to rising at 6am).

9:10 am - I pass a duty-free shop featuring a great big honking display of Cuban cigars. Only the really good stuff. I stop dead in my tracks, jaw agape.

9:11 am - I phone my cigarhound buddy Barry, who is dumbfounded by the prices I'm quoting him - a mere 5% or so of what he pays his mail order sources in Canada and Europe. I'm talking $9 for a box of five big Cohiba Siglo IIIs. Sealed boxes, genuine-seeming. Smell good. I'm on the verge of a consumorgasm.

9:13 am - Barry cautions me that it will be tough to get the cigars through customs. Rushing to catch my flight, daffy with sleepiness, I tell him I'll "work something out", and buy a box of Siglo IIIs, literally paying for them with pocket change.

9:45 am - I board my flight, and fall fast asleep

1:30 pm - I awaken, refreshed, and able to actually think. I mentally scan the situation: I'm carrying tons of mole paste (pronounced "MOE - lay", the ubiquitous and vastly complex Oaxacan sauces), ok to bring in, as it's dried, but requiring declaration and inspection. And that inspection will involving passing ALL bags through scanning machinery which surely detects cigar-shaped objects, and agents are surely watching for Cubanos.

I could put the cigars in my jacket to avoid scanning, but I'm also bringing in eight bottles of very cheap mezcal...without receipt, so I can't prove their purchase price. The customs agent can calculate duty based on any price he'd care to guestimate, and even confiscate the bottles if he deems them sufficient quantity for commercial use (agents have wide discretion to make such calls).

I'm pretty sure I can convince the customs agent of the mezcal price. And the mole's no problem (customs guys identify mole paste via x-rays as readily as dentists catch cavities; mole is definitely not unknown to them, which I actually find really cool). But if I prove myself shmucky by getting caught smuggling in Cubanos, I'll lose all credibility. All bets will be off, everything will be reexamined in a new light, and deep reaming is possible.

1:45 pm - I resolve to ditch the Cohibas, relieved to lose only nine bucks for my foolishness.

3:00 pm - We land, and I make my way stiffly into the terminal, intending to find a trash can and discretely toss the cigars.

3:01 pm - 3:11 pm - There are no trash cans. Anywhere. Not one.

3:12 pm - I pass through immigration. No problems (but no trash cans). I've checked a box on my customs card stating that I'm carrying food items (the mole paste). The agent says it should be no problem.

3:15 pm - I reach baggage claim. There are no trash cans. I begin to perspire. I cannot simply toss the cigars under the luggage carousel; I could be suspected of being part of a smuggling team, planting items for partners to pick up later. That'd be much worse than losing some mezcal and cigars.

3:21 pm - Luggage starts coming down the chute. I'm running out of time. Homeland security guys are everywhere. I wonder whether sensitive high-tech instruments in the ceiling are detecting my perspiration and keying onto me.

3:26 pm - My bags have arrived. I try to find a bathroom, am pointed down a hallway...but ordered not to bring my baggage (cigars are in my carry-on) with me. Yikes.

3:33 pm - Back at baggage claim, waiting with the crowd to pass through the final customs checkpoint, I suddenly feel supremely confident. Everyone's passing through without hassle. I can just walk straight through to the street. No problem. Stay cool. Just go with the flow, little man. I am Steve McQueen.

3:38 pm - Agent takes my customs card,  and sees that I've answered "yes" to "I am bringing in food". I dismissively note that it's just mole paste, but am sent over to the agriculture inspector. So much for flow. There will be no simple walk out to the street. And the agriculture inspector is unoccupied. Lonely. Ready to lavish upon me his full attention. 

My cool is totally blown as I flash on my situation: I've just passed a customs checkpoint without declaring the cigars. Declaring them now, only after having been singled out for inspection, is, uh, what's the word? Oh yeah. Smuggling.

3:39 pm - I rush up to the agriculture inspector and say, in a high-pitched Hanna Barbera breathless staccato of nearly unintelligble velocity:

"Uh hi I'm here because I checked food I mean the box for declaring food because I have lots of mexican mole paste and you can see it if you want but that's not the main problem here the main thing is that I'm carrying these cigars and and I didn't realize they're Cuban until after I bought them but they are Cuban and I know that's not legal so I need to tell you this immediately and be on the record that I told you this immediately and I'm sorry I'm an idiot I tried to just like throw them away but there were no trash cans so can I like just give them to you right now so I don't like have to go to jail or anything...."

At this point, the unflappable stone-faced agriculture inspector interrupts by gesturing toward me in a way no adult has done since I was in third grade: he smoothly brings his index finger to his mouth and makes a quiet shushing sound. My rant retracts into a low gurgle deep in my throat, as I obediently close my mouth.

"You're only bringing a few cigars, right?" he asks. Before I can answer affirmatively, he hands me back my passport and says  "Shouldn't be a problem. And the mole's no problem at all. Pass through, please."

3:40 pm - I emerge at street level (taxi?? taxi?? taxi?? taxi?? taxi??), with all my mezcal (no duty paid!), all my mole paste (no inspection!), and...five lovely and grotesquely underpriced big fat Cohiba cigars!

I just so totally rule (although Barry believes I was let off on grounds of insanity).

I had some concerns that the cigars might be counterfeit, especially at this price. They looked legit to my uneducated eye, but Barry has confirmed it:

Box ✓
Government seal ✓
Factory sticker ✓
Band ✓
Color ✓
Construction ✓


Pat said...

I'm with Barry! : )

Unknown said...

Jim -

That's priceless - thanks for a great chuckle (well, almost guffaws).


Unknown said...

Steve McQueen ...with a conscience. :-) funny!

Carrie said...

LOL. love this story!

i personally found it easier to just drive down to Mexico, walk across the border, smoke a cuban cigar and have margaritas with lunch, and then walk back to the US.

Pat said...

Whenever I need a good belly laugh for therapeutic reasons, I know where to come! This is such a morning. I feel better already!

Anonymous said...

You should be arrested and charged with smuggling and that aggy should be fired.

Jim Leff said...

Finally, someone talking some sense!

W00ty said...

The last two posters are the reason our country is so screwed up. It just a cigar. Not a big deal. They say that we are free, just not to smoke any cigar we want. That doesn't sound free. This was a great story, thank you for the laughs.

Anonymous said...

Pretty good price considering they sell for $9.00 in Cuba per stick. I wonder why duty free would sell them for 0 profit. Maybe a lovely parting gift for visiting.

Nichiro said...


Almost like my Hind thing. LOL..
Loved your narration.

Ya, I am thinking of resuming my blog.
Soon ...you will see.

Anonymous said...

Actually Cuban cigars are not illegal to smoke or posess in America you just cannot buy or sell them in america do to the embargo! I live in Canada and I travel
To the states a lot and I always say I have a few Cuban cigars on me because I smoke cigars and I like Cuban cigars! Always no problem as long as I only have enough for myself and i don't have a lot on me that looks like I'm going to sell them ! And I think you got fakes for sure! They would not have made any profit. I go to Cuba twice a year and always buy 2 boxes of 25 cigars every time and I usually get cohiba siglo 2 and Romeo y Juliet cedros number 3 and the cohibas are 173 bucks for 25 so if you got them from Mexico they are fake!

Unknown said...

Since you bought it at duty free. You have a 95% chance they are legal. Duty free wants you buy and help the govt. Why cheat you. A box is hard to get through a few sticks are simple.

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