Belgian customs agents arrested 45 people on Wednesday as part of the country’s largest operation against cigarette counterfeiting.
The country has become a hub for cigarette trafficking to neighboring countries.
Officers arrested 17 Ukrainian and Bulgarian nationals during a pre-dawn raid on a sweatshop in an industrial area of Aartselaar, near the northern city of Antwerp.
The men were housed in a ramshackle bedroom in the warehouse, working shifts to dry the tobacco and run it through rolling machines.
“This warehouse works 24 hours a day, and the workers do not leave it, so as not to give any sign of suspicious activity to the neighborhood,” explained Florence Angelici, spokeswoman for the Belgian Ministry of Finance.
“And then they will sleep, work, eat, shower in place, without going out for weeks, even months,” he added.
A large stock of cigarettes was ready to go to the UK, in brand-name packets bearing the health warnings that are common in the country.
28 million cigarettes
A total of four illegal production sites were discovered, as well as several sites used for logistics, grinding tobacco or storing cigarette paper, filters and glue.
In addition to Aartselaar, the workshops were also located in Tongeren, Eeklo and Frasnes-lez-Anvaing, respectively in the east, north and west of Belgium and providing easy access to the British, French and Dutch markets.
A total of 45 people were arrested, some of whom were already known for similar crimes in other European states, the Finance Ministry said, adding that “the majority” were Ukrainian citizens.
According to a first estimate, more than 28 million cigarettes were seized, but the inventory is still in process, the ministry added. The smuggled cigarettes were sold under the Marlboro, Richmond, Prince and Regina brands.
The number of counterfeit cigarette production centers closed by the Belgian authorities now stands at seven since the beginning of the year, compared to five for all of 2020.
Counterfeit cigarettes ‘bring in a lot of money’
More than 400 million illegal cigarettes were seized by Belgian customs last year, compared to 110 million in 2018.
Belgian customs administrator General Kristian Vanderwaeren described the operation on Wednesday as the largest ever carried out by his administration.
“The black market (for cigarettes) generates a lot of money, since taxes are very high,” he explained. Here “a pack of cigarettes costs about € 8, and of that, from six to seven euros are excise duties and VAT.”
Smuggled cigarette packs are sold for € 4-5.
“Half-price cigarettes are not legal cigarettes and the product, be it tobacco or filter, does not meet health standards,” Vanderwaeren warned.
In addition, the sales “feed criminal organizations, which then use this money to organize the trafficking of women and drugs,” the official said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism