Illicit Cigarettes – Hong Kong customs intercepts four shipping containers

Photo: Winson Wong

Hong Kong customs has uncovered HK$85 million worth of smuggled cigarettes in the largest seizure of its kind in two decades, after authorities acted on intelligence indicating a syndicate was shipping the haul into the city in four containers.

Some 31 million cigarettes were stashed in the containers from Yokohama in Japan. They were then shipped through different ports in South Korea, Vietnam and mainland China, according to Lee Hoi-man, deputy head of the Revenue and General Investigation Bureau under customs.

He said the circuitous route was used by smugglers to avoid detection.

“The containers were shipped into three to four different ports before they came to Hong Kong,” Lee said adding that the contents listed on import documents were changed to throw off law enforcement in various jurisdictions.

Four men – one mainlander and three Hongkongers – aged between 24 and 41 were arrested in the operation on Monday. They were still being held for questioning on Tuesday evening.

Information on the containers was shared to a global database operated jointly by customs from different countries, under an anti-smuggling campaign code-named “Project Crocodile”.

A law enforcement source said the containers were left idle at another port since December, but were then suddenly moved across different countries before arriving in Hong Kong, one at a time since last Friday.

Lee said: “It is possible smugglers believed our frontline officers were tied up in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.” He added that some of the contraband items were believed to be destined for countries in eastern Europe as some cigarette brands seized in the operation were popular there.

Hong Kong customs began investigating the syndicate in mid-December before identifying the four containers.

On Monday afternoon, officers from the Revenue and General Investigation Bureau swooped into action and seized 22 million sticks of cigarettes stashed in three containers at yards in Yuen Long, Sheung Shui and Man Kam To, arresting the four men.

At the Sheung Shui site, officers also seized 3,500 bottles of duty-not-paid liquor worth HK$2.5 million.

On Tuesday, the fourth container which had arrived from Shenzhen a day before was selected for inspection. Nine million cigarettes were found in it.

Lee said the combined haul had an estimated street value of HK$85 million, and was the biggest seizure of its kind in two decades in a single operation.

He said his team was working with overseas counterparts to determine the exact origin of the shipment and track down the ring leader and core syndicate members.

In Hong Kong, importing or exporting unmanifested cargo carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail and a HK$2 million fine.

Source: Article by Clifford Lo, South Morning Post, 18 February 2020

ZIM Police struggle to bust cigarette racket

CigarettesAn intricate web of smugglers, which reportedly involves manufacturers and middlemen, has been illegally carting cigarettes worth millions of dollars out of the country over the years, prejudicing the treasury of vital revenue.

Cigarette manufacturer, Savanna, has been fingered as one of the main culprits, while multinationals like BAT have also been mentioned in the illicit cross-border trade, mainly to South Africa.

Commonly smuggled brands include Remington Gold, Madison, Sevilles, Magazine Blue, Chelsea and Pacific Blue, manufactured by Savanna – which consistently denies smuggling.

A senior police sokesperson said “Even though we don’t always talk about it, we have managed to make significant arrests and the cases have been taken to court. The arrests include smuggling attempts at undesignated spots along the border and through official exit points such as Beitbridge”

A senior customs official told The Zimbabwean that cigarette smuggling, particularly through Beitbridge and Plumtree border posts, was difficult to arrest because of corruption.

“Policing at the border posts involves several agencies, namely the police, CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation), customs and special deployments from ZIMRA (Zimbabwe Revenue Authority). The problem is that these officers work in collaboration with the smugglers and haulage trucks and other containers carrying the cigarettes are cleared without proper checking. Hefty bribes are involved and the money is too tempting to resist,” said the customs official.

“You would be amazed how wealthy these officers have become. They have bought houses, luxury cars and send their children to expensive schools – yet their regular salaries are so low,” he added.

Immigration and customs officials, who also constantly liaise with their South African and Botswana counterparts and meet physically regularly, pretend to be checking the containers but clear them without completing the task, and know what the trucks and other carriers would be ferrying.

ZIMRA has four scanners for detecting contraband and an anti-smuggling team that also uses sniffer dogs, in addition to guard soldiers posted between the Zimbabwean and South African borders.

There are about 15 regular roadblocks along the Harare-Beitbridge road and 10 between Bulawayo and Plumtree that search trucks, buses and private cars. Despite this, the smuggling continues because of the collusion among the officials, said the source.

In early January, the Ferret team, a joint operation involving Zimbabwean and South African officers, intercepted a truckload of 790 Remington Gold cigarettes worth an estimated $119,000 destined for South Africa along the Masvingo-Beitbridge road. The smugglers were caught and arrested while offloading the cartons into small trucks. Source: The Zimbabwean