Belgian customs officers yesterday mounted their biggest-ever operation against counterfeit cigarette production, swooping on 10 illegal sites and making at least 40 arrests.
International gangs have turned Belgium into a production hub for fake cigarettes, falsely packaged as leading brands and sold tax-free to smokers in neighbouring countries, particularly Britain.
In a non-descript industrial park in Aartselaar, on a main road into the port city of Antwerp, officers arrested 18 men in a pre-dawn raid in an unmarked warehouse.
The suspects, from eastern Europe, lived in a ramshackle dormitory inside the plant, working shifts to dry tobacco then pass it through cigarette-rolling machines.
Some were sleeping in their bunks when the armed officers burst in while others were running the machines.
They were led off in handcuffs as senior officers arrived with reporters.
“While this depot was working 24 hours a day, the workers never left the plant, so as not to alert the neighbourhood,” said Florence Angelici, spokeswoman for the Belgian finance ministry in charge of the customs service.
Behind her, a partitioned section of the warehouse featured messy bunks, overflowing suitcases and signs of a hastily abandoned breakfast.
“They slept here, worked here, ate here, took their showers - they didn’t leave for weeks, even months,” she said.
A vast stock of cigarettes was ready for shipment, apparently to Britain, with packages resembling popular Richmond and Marlboro brands and printed with standard UK health warnings in English.
In total four production sites were found, alongside six more sites used for logistics, to shred raw tobacco or to store supplies like cigarette paper, filters and glue.
Some of the plants were in northern Belgium, in Tongeren, Eeklo and Frasnes-lez-Anvaing — close to the port and allegedly serving the gang’s markets in Britain, France and The Netherlands.
Officials processing the vast haul estimated they had seized tens of millions of cigarettes falsely branded as Marlboro, Richmond, Prince or Regina.
The raids brought the number of illegal cigarette production sites closed down in Belgium so far this year to seven, more than the five raided in all of 2020.
Last year, more than 400mn cigarettes were seized by Belgian customs but authorities are not crying victory yet over the growing problem.
The haul in the Aartselaar plant underlined the cross-border nature of the trade.
The cigarettes — which may be even more hazardous than usual for consumers because they are not made to mandated health standards — were in British-style packaging, but the safety warning notices on the cigarette-rolling machine were in Polish.
The detained suspects hailed from Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria.
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