The development comes as Customs officers fly out to the Philippines today with colleagues from the EU Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to pursue the investigation.
Investigation sources told the Irish Examiner yesterday that the seven Irish men arrested last Tuesday following the seizure were “top of the pile” in the criminal enterprise.
Some of those arrested have been the subject of investigation by the Criminal Assets Bureau, who were also involved in this week’s investigation.
“There is a very good possibility of charges being brought,” said one investigator. “They were caught with their hands in the cookie jar.”
The seven were arrested with the cigarettes, mainly at the importer’s premises outside Dundalk. Garda and Customs also searched three homes, in addition to boarding the MV Anne Scan, the cargo vessel importing the haul. They also confiscated €30,000 in cash and seized three trucks.
One source said the seven men were “known for their involvement in smuggling in the last number of years”.
One of the men — a middle-aged man from Co Louth — has extensive involvement in large-scale cigarette smuggling.
He is reported to be connected with a leading boss in the Real IRA.
But investigators again stressed to the Irish Examiner that they believed a cross-border organised criminal gang was behind the operation and that none were known dissidents.
“This is an organised crime group, we don’t see any connection with dissidents,” said one source.
Investigators said it was “possible” there might be a link to dissidents, if only through some of the load being fed down to them.
Experts estimate the gang was set to earn around €20m in profit from the operation, having paid out around €2m for the cigarettes, the animal feed they were hidden in and the hiring of the vessel.
“This is a significant blow to them, but not significant expenditure,” said one source.
Sources said any prosecution will take time. “We have to gather the evidence, taken from abroad. That will be very time-consuming, so it won’t be in the immediate future,” said one source.
Two Customs officers are flying out to the Philippines today, joined by experts from OLAF, which is coordinating the international aspect of the investigation.