Former Catalan official arrested on tobacco-smuggling charges

Leftist politician Jordi Ausàs accused of running cigarette racket out of tax-free zone of Andorra

Jordi Ausàs.

A former top Catalan commissioner, who served in the tripartite government during the past Socialist administration of José Montilla, posted a 145,000-euro bail Monday following his arrest last week on charges that he was part of a gang of contrabandists that brought in cigarettes and other tobacco products from the duty-free principality of Andorra.

Wednesday's arrest of Jordi Ausàs, of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), has shocked the entire political spectrum in the northeast region but especially in La Seu d'Urgell, where he served as mayor of the Lleida town between 2003 and 2008.

Besides Ausàs, a special investigative squad from the Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra police force also arrested six other suspects, including a Civil Guard officer.

Investigators also conducted a search of Ausàs' residence.

Since May, when the investigation began, Ausàs and his alleged gang are said to have imported some 300,000 euros' worth of cigarettes and other tobacco products from Andorra, a tax-free zone, according to authorities.

Ausàs was retired from political life but, until Monday when he was suspended from the party, was remained an active member of the ERC.

"I am surprised and I hope that this is all cleared up. I know him as a person who is honest and good," said ERC deputy Carmel Mòdel, of Lleida.

A judge in La Seu d'Urgell decided to release Ausàs and two other suspects, identified as José Félix T. A. and Antoni R. E., after they posted bail. The former ERC politician had been held in custody at the Ponent de Lleida prison, according to judicial sources.

According to the judge, there is "sufficient" evidence to support the charges that the detained persons formed part of a "professional" and "very active" gang that imported tobacco from Andorra. Police have surveillance recordings of phone conversations and had been following the suspects' movements.

Prosecutors say that the group made "several trips a day" from Andorra to La Seu d'Urgell in which they would haul in about 400 cartons of cigarettes. The price difference was about 1.5 euros for each single pack. The group would receive about 6,000 euros for each trip they made. At one point, according to the judicial case record, the gang "moved some 117,512 euros in just 13 days."

But there was a major difference between Ausàs' organization and traditional contrabandists who cross the border through solitary Pyrenean roads and paths linking Andorra and Spain. With the help of the civil guard officer who has been charged in the case, the gang would cross the border post with no questions asked at La Farga de Moles.

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