A specialist Garda agency has launched a nationwide operation to crack down on the booming trade in illicit cigarettes in dodgy markets and rogue ethnic shops.
The intelligence-led investigation is using sophisticated methods to identify where the vast quantities of dodgy cigarettes coming into the country are sold.
An estimated €250 million is lost to the State in taxes from the trade each year, while the industry estimates it is deprived of some €500m worth of retail sales.
The national operation, code-named Decipher, was given the green light by Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and is being co-ordinated by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
The bureau’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit launched the operation in mid-September, in conjunction with Revenue and the assistance of experts from the tobacco and retail industries.
“Operation Decipher is focusing on markets, shops and door-to-door sales,” said Det Supt George Kyne of the IPCU. “This operation is more from the ground up.”
Speaking at a conference on the illicit trade in Ireland, he said many of the ethnic shops were only selling illicit cigarettes to their own community and not to the general population.
“We are working with local retailers to thwart the problem of cigarette sales,” he said. “There are pockets where there are problems.”
He said they had come across instances where children are used as runners by cigarette gangs. He said another problem was counterfeit clothing and footwear.
The industry estimates that illicit cigarettes now account for around a third of the tobacco market.
Frank Gleeson of Retail Ireland told the Shelflife conference that if he was Nidge, the gang boss in the hit RTÉ crime drama Love/Hate, “I’d deal in tobacco, not drugs”, because of the enormous profits in illicit cigarettes and the low penalties imposed on those who are caught.
Michael McGill of Revenue’s Central Investigation Unit told Shelflife that there were “five or six large organised crime groups — mainly along the border — that would control the importation and movement” of illicit cigarettes.
His said there were similar groups working on fuel laundering, “organised criminals with national and international links”. Some estimates have put the number of such gangs at 10 or 12.
Det Supt Kyne said gardaí “have upped the ante” against fuel smugglers, with “umpteen checkpoints” in the last number of months, which was “having an effect” on the producers. Customs figures show nine fuel laundries were uncovered in 2012, 11 in 2012 and seven so far this year.
The profits from laundries are massive, with one plant uncovered this year capable of producing 18 million litres of laundered fuel a year. The criminals were making roughly 60c per litre, or €9m in all, excluding operating and distribution costs.
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