Police and customs across Belgium have raided a total of ten factories manufacturing counterfeit cigarettes for markets mainly in France and the UK.
The operation this morning was the biggest of its kind in the history of the customs service, involving locations in Charleroi, Leuze-en-Hainaut and Frasne-lez-Anvaing (Hainaut province), Aartselaar (Antwerp), Bree and Tongeren (Limburg), Drogenbos (Flemish Brabant) and Eeklo in East Flanders. Some 150 police and customs officers were involved.
Although the final inventory of seizures has yet to be completed, the customs service estimates the total haul of the operation to be 40 arrests on site and elsewhere, tens of million of counterfeit cigarettes and tons of tobacco.
The arrests that were made on-site involved mainly migrant workers who slept and worked on the premises, most likely trafficked to Belgium and working for slave wages. At the time of the raids the factories were in full production, which tends to be a 24-hour operation.
In Aartselaar, for example, the factory was situated in an industrial zone with major outlet commercial units. And the operation is not an amateur operation.
In one space, a place for drying the tobacco; another for cutting it up and placing it in the paper tubes, and finally the packaging, using facsimiles of the packets used by Marlboro and Richmond, among other leading brands.
"From what I see here, at first glance, this is one of the biggest sites dismantled in recent years,” said Antonio Gallo, of the European anti-fraud office OLAF, who was at the scene.
“The production capacity is very extensive. I see tons of raw tobacco, we are talking about tens of millions of cigarettes."
Just two weeks ago, OLAF carried out raids in Spain and Portugal netting 27 million cigarettes and 51 tonnes of raw tobacco. The business is lucrative for the counterfeiters: the operation at that time was estimated to be worth €10 million in excise fraud alone, not to mention the profits made.
The main markets for the counterfeit cigarettes are said to be the United Kingdom and France, both countries where excise duties on cigarettes are high, making it easy for the counterfeiters to undercut the official price while making a substantial profit.
To make matters worse for the authorities, the members of the public who make up the market for the fake cigarettes appear to have fewer or no compunction about supporting a criminal activity if they feel the effect immediately in their pocket, and if the only victim is either the government or Big Tobacco.
Last year, some 400 million illegal cigarettes were seized in Belgium alone, nearly four time the number seized two years previously.