Huge profits tempt Irish citizens into smuggling


This week has thrown up two different types of cigarette-related crime, both of which illustrate the huge profits still to be made from tobacco-smuggling.

The theft of 5.8 million cigarettes from a train in Co Louth on Monday is a straightforward case of larceny, and as such is now being investigated by gardai. On the other hand, the smuggled consignment of 10 million seized in Dublin Port is a Customs matter, and altogether more typical of the illegal trade in cigarettes; except, arguably, in that it was caught.

Customs sources do not even try to put figures on the black market traffic that goes unchecked, but admit it has assumed "massive proportions" since 1993, when the European Union's internal borders came down. With the physical barriers removed but huge variations in tax still in place, especially between northern and southern Europe, the opportunities for smugglers were "greatly enhanced", according to one Customs spokesman.

And Irish people are playing a leading role in the international trade. He adds: "It must be a question of inheritance, the fact that we have a Border here, and a long tradition of smuggling." But whatever the reason, Irish citizens are involved in every facet of the trade on the mainland continents, "finance, airline ticketing, driving, counterintelligence, you name it".

The phenomenon is supported by statistics. In 1997 Customs officials seized 14 million smuggled cigarettes within the State; down to 8.5 million in 1998. In the same two years Irish nationals (and by extension) Irish Customs officials were involved in seizures of 52 million and 90 million respectively elsewhere in Europe. At least 13 Irish people were arrested in the process, in France, Spain, the UK and Belgium.

Typically, cigarettes are acquired tax-free from warehouses in southern Europe and beyond, and smugglers "launder" the cargo through several countries, where it is subject to only documentary control. The tiny Pyrenean country of Andorra is a popular staging post: the Customs spokesman jokes that if all cigarettes warehoused there were for local consumption, every Andorran would be on 2,000 a day.

Andorra apart, "the trick is to get them on the move", he says. In the process, cigarettes undergo a documentary metamorphosis; so that by the time they reach their intended destination, they may be manifested in shipping documents as chipboard, as was the case with those seized in Dublin Port.

In some cases, smugglers target transcontinental lorries and load contraband cargoes unknown to the drivers. At any rate, this is the invariable defence of the drivers, although Customs officers may harbour doubts.

The Dublin Port cigarettes, which had been tracked over 10 days from Hong Kong to Europe, were probably bound for the UK, which has yet to adopt a tax-stamp system for tobacco sales. The adoption of the system in the Republic has effectively killed the illegal street trade in duty-free cigarettes, Revenue officials claim.

But there are huge profits to be made in the international trade, and the Customs spokesman admits that cigarette-smuggling is "organised crime at its best". He adds: "It's also `clean' crime in that it's tax crime. These people are commodity brokers, which is not to say they won't graduate into dealing in illegal drugs. We haven't found that crossover yet, but in the context of organised crime, people go where the profits are."