International organised crime figures are believed to be behind a “sophisticated, self-contained” illegal cigarette-making factory uncovered near the Border on Thursday.
Officers from the Revenue and the Garda a used a con-saw and ladders to get through walls of hay, which were three bales deep, to reach the concealed operation near Jenkinstown, Co Louth.
Inside they found a machine capable of producing 250,000 cigarettes an hour as well as make-shift living quarters fitted with bunk beds, a stocked freezer, a toilet and a shower.
There was no sign of a means of ventilation and no fire escape in the building, however. There was CCTV covering the yard and the single-track country road outside it.
Eleven men were arrested inside the factory, which is believed to be the first illegal commercial-scale cigarette production plant found in the State. Officers said the products seized, had they reached the market, could have led to a potential loss of €12 million for the Exchequer.
One garda said the scale of what was uncovered was “phenomenal”.
"I believe it is one of the largest in Europe, " he said.
Some 66 tonnes of raw tobacco, said to be enough to make 66 million cigarettes, was found during the raid, as were around 25 million cigarettes, which were all commercially packaged in counterfeit Mayfair branded 20 packs.
The boxed cigarettes were wrapped in cellophane and loaded onto lorries before being shipped to England.
Cash and computers
About €40,000 of cash and computers were also seized during the raid, and armed gardaí remained on the site throughout the day while work dismantling the plant was carried out.
“You literally have commercial cigarette-making machinery in here covering from the pre-processing stage to processing and to the post-processing stage which includes packaging,” said Mick Gilligan, head of international operations and investigations with Revenue.
“So you have a process that involves raw tobacco which is then shredded, it goes through a cigarette-making machine, it is cut, dried, through a packaging process into [boxes of] 20s, then into 200s, and then into master cases holding 10,000.”
Mr Gilligan added: “An eastern European crime gang has been involved in all of this. They have brought in between eight and 11 operatives who were self-contained on site within accommodation on the site for 10-12 days.”
In a statement, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan commended the operation, which he said "demonstrates the benefits of the close working relationship between An Garda Síochána, Revenue, Customs officials and the PSNI in tackling this type of fraudulent activity".
The 11 men arrested are aged between their 20s and 50s. They remained in custody at Dundalk Garda station on Thursday night on suspicion of committing offences under the Finance Act.
Benny Gilsenan, a spokesman for Retailers Against Smuggling, said there was a growing market in Ireland for cheap illicit tobacco products. He warned against further raising the price of legal cigarettes.
“It is time for the Government to stop increasing excise and focus on the issue and give consideration to the impact the illicit trade is having on small retailers who are already struggling to maintain business and keep on current employees,” said Mr Gilsenan. “It is also striking that this illegal factory is producing branded packs at a time when retailers are receiving plain packs.”