Arrests as French, Spanish police bust illegal tobacco factory

Police have shut down an illegal tobacco factory in Spain capable of producing 9,000 cigarettes per hour, making seven arrests.

A raid at the facility in the Spanish town of Borjas Blancas netted almost 1m cigarettes ready to be shipped, along with more than €72,000 in cash which enforcement agencies believe was acquired from the sale of the illicit cigarettes.

All of those arrested were Lithuanian and Polish nationals, and included the person believed to be the ringleader of the criminal network who was apprehended at his private residence in the town of Mataró.

An accomplice was also arrested in the town of La Jonquera on the border of France, which has become a notorious hot spot for the counterfeit goods trade. Two factory workers were also taken into custody, along with three drivers who were picked up in earlier enforcement actions.

In a similar action last month, another lorry driving towards the French border was stopped at the Spanish town of Canfranc and 864,000 cigarettes were seized. The two Lithuanian drivers were apprehended. Previously, 5m illegal cigarettes were seized by French customs and a Polish driver was arrested.

The factory was shutdown as part of Operation Karuna, an enforcement drive led by Spain’s Guardia Civil and tax authorities with the help of Lithuanian and French customs, Polish police and Europol.

It had the capacity to accommodate up to 14 workers who would work in shifts to maintain round-the-clock production, and was being used mainly to supply cigarettes in Spain and France, according to a Europol statement.

A recent KPMG report on the European market for illicit cigarettes showed that use is declining, but production has been on the increase.

The report suggested that the overall picture is one of increasing sophistication by the criminal networks behind the illicit trade, with multiple production units to compensate if one is raised, and increasingly high tech manufacturing equipment.

Illicit manufacturers are producing counterfeit, established and new illicit white brands to order at scale for organisations and smugglers who can arrange distribution of large volumes, either in large shipments or increasingly via high frequency, low volume shipments, it added.

The EU has implemented new track-and-trace regulations to try to curb the illicit trade, although it has come in for criticism for effectively delegating responsibility to the tobacco industry.

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