Extensive sale of illegal cigarettes by gangs

A snapshot test purchasing operation by two former police chiefs found illicit cigarettes for sale in every one of the 27 areas, across 16 counties, they visited.

The investigators reported that between 70%-80% of the 120 separate purchases they made were of a brand of illegal cigarettes called “illicit whites” — which they said is controlled by organised criminals.

Their report shows the illicit trade is dominated by criminal gangs, dissident republicans, Traveller gangs, and Eastern European outfits.

The study — funded by the tobacco giant Philip Morris International — involved a brief inspection in 27 separate locations in 16 counties between May and December 2015.

The investigators — retired Garda Detective Chief Supt Kevin Donoghoe and former Scotland Yard detective chief inspector Will O’Reilly — said that while they were paid by Philip Morris, their work was “entirely independent” of it.

“This is not a scientific study, it’s a snapshot,” said Mr Donoghoe, “but it was professionally run and organised.”

Each of the visits involved four investigators,by separate teams, who examined the situation over two days.

“In 100% of locations we found illegal cigarettes,” said Mr Donoghoe, “but 70%-80% of them were illicit whites.”

He said illicit whites were purely the realm of organised crime as they could only be bought by the container load. A container could hold a maximum of 10 million packets and would be worth in the region of €1.5m. Individual packets sell on the street for between €4-€4.50, compared to normal retail prices of €10.50.

In their visits, they were sold cigarettes by street sellers; in pubs; by people in their homes; and through internet contacts.

Mr Donoghoe estimated there were “probably 30 or more” organised crime groups involved in the trade.

Their findings from the 16 counties include:

  • Dublin: Trade controlled by dissidents, organised crime groups and Eastern European groups; 22 separate purchases were made.
  • Louth: Dissidents dominate the trade with two to three leading groups, as well as Eastern European gangs; 15 separate purchases.
  • Cork: Significant involvement of dissidents; nine separate purchases made.
  • Limerick City: Local families dominate; 11 separate purchases.
  • Waterford: Dissidents, Traveller gangs and Eastern European groups involved; five purchases made.

In all, dissident republican groups were present in six counties: Dublin, Louth, Wicklow, Cork, Waterford and Galway.

“You have dissidents and former members of PIRA [Provisional IRA],” said Mr Donoghoe, who previously headed the Special Detective Unit — which combats terror groups.

“Many are engaged in this for their own profit, but others are affiliated to dissidents, whether CIRA [Continuity IRA] or RIRA [Real IRA]. There’s no doubt there’s a kickback to the ‘cause’ in some shape or form.”

He said the growth in the illicit whites was an increasing trend, which, he felt, reflected the profit margins in the trade and the lower risk of detection, as well as the lower penalties if caught.

Mr O’Reilly said the Revenue Commissioners estimated the State lost around €250m a year from this trade, while industry research suggests it’s as high as €500m.

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