CHICAGO - It's an unintended consequence of the fight against terrorism that has left some cigar aficionados fuming: Terrorists in Yemen try to send bomb-laden packages to the United States on cargo planes, and now a connoisseur in Iowa can't get his Cuban cigars from Switzerland.
Tighter scrutiny and new Homeland Security limits on incoming air-cargo parcels have inadvertently stymied the common but illicit practice in the United States of ordering Cuban cigars from distributors in Europe.
As a result of the new regulations, authorities say seizures of Cuban cigars - considered the world's best but outlawed in the United States since a 1963 embargo on Cuba - have soared.
The surge has been most dramatic in Chicago, a hub of the country's air-cargo network. Typically, customs at O'Hare Airport confiscates 2,000 Cuban cigars over two weeks. But more than 100,000 have been seized the last two weeks, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"These new rules will make this trade more difficult," said Brian Bell, a Chicago spokesman for the agency.
The confiscations in Chicago and plans to destroy the seized cigars have created a buzz in the U.S. cigar community. Chat-rooms on Cigar Aficionado magazine's website are flooded with talk about the seizures, with many commentators bemoaning how difficult it might become to acquire Cuban cigars.
But high-end cigar shops that have complained for decades about incoming Cuban cigars cutting into their sales welcomed the surge in confiscations.
"Guys who order Cuban cigars are telling me, 'Gee, I'm going to have to buy more cigars from you now,'" said Chuck Levi, owner of Iwan Ries & Co. cigar store in Chicago. "I'm glad."
Others saw opportunity. One online commentator suggested that aficionados gather near where the cigars will be destroyed in Chicago to "cry and then breathe in the nice smoke."
A thwarted Yemeni-based terrorist plot in October prompted the new rules. The terrorists hid two bombs inside printers and addressed them to the former addresses of two synagogues in Chicago, possibly in a bid to take down two cargo planes over the United States.
The rules announced in November include a ban on all cargo from Yemen. Federal authorities also said there would be extra screening of many packages, though they have declined to elaborate on the new procedures to make it harder to circumvent them.
A big reason so many cigars are being seized in Chicago is a new rule that almost totally bans shipping international parcels aboard U.S.-bound passenger planes. Because there are fewer cargo planes, European suppliers had to stockpile hundreds of packages before getting space aboard an air-freight plane, Bell said. Once customs identified one or two packages as containing cigars, he said, it became clear that similar-looking packages also held cigars.