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A Fort Lauderdale, Fla., company that ranks among the biggest cigar manufacturers in the world is cracking down on what it says is rampant cigar counterfeiting in South Florida. Last week, Miami-Dade County police raided a Hialeah retail store called Cuba Habanos USA and arrested its owner. Detectives seized more than 2,000 cigar boxes with counterfeit labels and thousands of inserts and cigars bands, according to Miami-Dade police. An expert from Altadis U.S.A., the cigar giant leading the anti-counterfeit campaign, accompanied detectives on the raid to confirm the labels were phony. The move was part of a yearlong effort by Altadis, which makes the U.S. versions of well-known cigar brands like H. Upmann, Montecristo, and Romeo y Julieta, to combat cigar counterfeiting. The cigar maker says the manufacture and trade of illicit cigars is a multimillion-dollar business in South Florida, and that it has become a particularly acute problem in the last year. According to attorneys for Altadis, more and more warehouses and backrooms of tobacco retailers in South Florida have become home to tobacco counterfeiters. In the past 12 months, Altadis officials say the company has assisted in three federal convictions, a number of arrests, and sued purportedly illicit cigar distributors and retailers for trademark infringement. The company is promising more arrests and prosecutions and the filing of as many as a dozen trademark infringement lawsuits in the next few months. “There has been a rash of cigar counterfeiting in South Florida that has come to our attention over the last year or so,” said Leora Herrmann, a partner at Grimes & Battersby in New York City who is heading Altadis’ anti-counterfeiting campaign. “There will be a lot more action both criminal and civil.” Herrmann said Altadis sales representatives learned of a surge in counterfeiting by visiting retail stores more than a year ago. In response, Herrmann hired Steven I. Peretz and Jorge Espinosa, partners at Kluger Peretz Kaplan & Berlin in Miami, to fight the alleged phony cigar trade in South Florida. Altadis, which is privately held, has revenues of more than $500 million annually, said company spokeswoman Janelle Rosenfeld. It sells primarily in the United States, but also exports cigars to distributors and retailers in Europe and Asia. Its cigars are manufactured in the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Competitors include New York City-based General Cigar, which makes the U.S. versions of Macanudo, Partagas and Cohiba cigars. Many of these brands previously were made in Cuba. But after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, a number of leading cigar makers fled to the United States. Meanwhile, the Cuban government continued producing cigars under the same brand name. So there is often a Cuban version and U.S. version of cigars with the same name. General Cigar spokeswoman Victoria McKee agreed that South Florida is one of the “hot areas” for cigar counterfeiting. South Florida is a center of cigar counterfeiting because they are quite popular — particularly among Hispanics — and because many people here understand the techniques of cigar making. “Many worked in cigar industry before the Castro revolution and have knowledge and skills about cigars,” Herrmann said. “It would be hard to find someone in Wisconsin who could do this.” Altadis’ lawyers maintain there is currently more cigar counterfeiting in South Florida than anywhere else in the country. In one single seizure recently at a Miami tobacco store, more than $500,000 worth of counterfeits were seized, Espinosa said. And lucrative frauds generally proliferate. “There is a lot of copy-catting in this type of illegal activity,” Herrmann said. But fake cigars aren’t high on the list of priorities for law enforcement. Ed Griffith, a spokesman for Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, suggested that cigar counterfeiting is not a top priority for law enforcement authorities. “The whole area of trademark counterfeiting has been a substantial concern and we have worked a number of cases on that,” Griffith said. “But that covers a broad area, from fake Louis Vuitton pocketbooks to counterfeit brand name jeans and CDs. Cigar counterfeiting is an area of concern but it is not as though we have a cigar task force.” Yet, it appears that police are beginning to take notice of the illegal trade. “This is something new we are coming up against,” said Miami-Dade Detective A. Ugarte, who headed the investigation that led to the Cuba Habanos USA raid in Hialeah last week. “This is the third or fourth raid this year. It is kind of opening up our eyes.” The cigar counterfeiting industry has a number of levels, Espinosa said. There are the printers of the fake cigar bands and labels that mimic the logo of well-known brands. There are individuals who sell the fake bands, labels and cigar boxes to cigar makers. And then there are cigar makers who market the bogus product. In some cases, there are financiers. Espinosa declined to discuss the methods Altadis is employing to root out fraud. But he said legitimate cigar makers generally use private investigators, confidential informants and physically inspect tobacco products on store shelves to spot fakes. Once fraud is spotted, the company follows a two-pronged approach of assisting police and local prosecutors while also suing in civil court for trademark infringement. In the Cuba Habanos USA case, after being tipped off by Altadis, Miami-Dade police detectives went to the Hialeah store on July 30 and purchased cigars that had bands and labels appearing to be authentic Romeo y Julieta cigars but were believed to be fakes. A search warrant was obtained and the raid was conducted August 7. Rodolfo Morejon, the owner of the store who was arrested, has another store in Broward County and an Internet site through which he does most of his business, Ugarte said. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office has charged Morejon in Miami-Dade Circuit Court with organized fraud and vending counterfeit goods — which carry penalties of up to five years in prison. He currently is out on bond and his retail outlets and Internet site remain open for business, Ugarte said. Morejon couldn’t be reached for comment. Last October, in another case involving Altadis cigars, three South Florida men were convicted of felony trademark counterfeiting in U.S. District Court in Miami. One of the three, Louis Ordonez, was found to have trafficked in bogus Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta cigars. The two others, Cesar Tellez and Jorge Guerra, were found guilty of supplying Ordonez with counterfeit packaging materials. Each was sentenced to 180 days in prison, 100 hours of community service and two years probation. Also that month, Altidas filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Miami for trademark infringement against several South Florida companies and their owner. That case, before U.S District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages, is pending. Next month, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office is slated to try Margie Martinez and Nelson Mena in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on charges of selling counterfeit cigars, Griffith said. In some of these cases, according to Altadis lawyers, defendants have argued that they were not copying Montecristo or Romeo y Julieta cigars made by U.S. companies. They argued they were instead copying the cigars of the same name produced by the Cuban government. “I’ve heard the argument on more than one occasion where they thought it was OK to use a name because they were imitating a Cuban brand and if they were damaging anyone, they were damaging the Cuban government,” Espinosa said. “It’s the kind of argument you would only hear in South Florida.” Thus far, however, the defense has not succeeded in court, he said.

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