An action day in Belgium has led to the seizure of over 57 million cigarettes and more than 48 tons of cut tobacco. Organised by Belgian Customs (Algemene Administratie van Douane en Accijnzen/Administration Générale des Douanes et Accises) and carried out based on close international cooperation and support from Europol, the joint effort prevented the circulation of tobacco products with a total tax value of more than EUR 32 million. Local Belgian law enforcement, the Belgian Federal Police (Federale Gerechtelijke Politie/Police Judiciaire Fédérale), the Polish Border Guard Control Service (Polska Straż Graniczna) as well as intelligence provided by the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau (Lietuvos Kriminalinės Policijos Biuras) all supported the action day.
Belgian customs authorities carried out house searches in warehouses and at a private residence in Belgium, some of which were based on intelligence provided by the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau on suspicious deliveries to addresses in Belgium. Law enforcement officers discovered two full production lines for cigarettes bearing a variety of well-known name brands. The market value of the seized cigarettes amounts to around EUR 73 million in the United Kingdom, the presumed country of distribution for the majority of the products. Additionally, law enforcement were able to secure a massive number of empty packages, filters, cigarette paper, glue, cardboard and packaging film, as well seven new machines intended for a new production and packaging line.
The searches led to the discovery of a variety of clandestine production sites, as well as warehouses for storage of enormous quantities of tobacco products. In some locations, sleeping quarters for workers were uncovered on the premises. Along with confiscating massive amounts of material used for counterfeit cigarette production, authorities seized various vehicles and arrested several persons of Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and Jordanian nationality.
Europol supported the operation by providing its secure communication platform and by facilitating international cooperation between Belgium and other Member States. Furthermore, Europol ran cross-checks and provided analytical support as well as operational expertise. Europol also supported the action day by deploying a mobile office on location in Belgium.
The investigation was carried out within the framework of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT), more specifically the operational action plan OA 2.1 “Illicit production of tobacco precursors”, with Belgian Customs as action leader.
Enormous amounts of tobacco products seized
The action day contributed to an already impressive record of accomplishment for Belgian authorities’ fight against the illegal production of cigarettes. This year alone, five illegal tobacco production sites and 15 storage warehouses have been uncovered and dismantled in the country. Over the same period, more than 274 million cigarettes, 88 tons of cut tobacco, 65 tons of water pipe tobacco and 40 tons of raw tobacco has been confiscated.
The total payables on these seized illicit tobacco products – consisting of the excise duty, special excise duty and value added tax – totals more than EUR 139 million. Factors such as its proximity to the French and British borders, rising excise duty rates in neighbouring countries, and short distances to certain black markets, have together led to Belgium becoming a major hub for illegal tobacco production and trade.