ILLEGAL TOBACCO

Spain’s secret cigarette makers

Illegal factories are able to produce hundreds of thousands of packs a day

An illegal tobacco factory dismantled by Spanish customs.
An illegal tobacco factory dismantled by Spanish customs.

Seeing a demand for cheap cigarettes in crisis-hit Spain, organized criminal gangs are importing tobacco, paper, filters, machinery and even labor to produce hundreds of thousands of packs of cigarettes each day, say police.

Authorities have dismantled eight “factories” around the country in the last two years, they add.

Around one in 10 cigarette packs sold in Spain is illegal, and up to 90% of them are produced by gangs based in the country. The rest are imported illegally from the likes of Gibraltar and Morocco.

The people on the machines are working pretty much under slave conditions” Spanish customs office source

“They bring the machines in from Poland and Belarus, taking off the identification plates so they pass as agricultural equipment without being inspected,” says a source at Spain’s customs office. “The quality of the packaging is very good, despite the fact that the people working the machines are working pretty much under slave conditions.”

Illegal cigarette factories are typically located on industrial estates or, as in the case of the one most recently dismantled, on a remote farm in Seville province, where criminals had brought in their own diesel-powered generators fitted with devices to avoid the smoke they produced being detected in the outside air.

But the police say they have begun to notice a decline in contraband tobacco. After five years of growth during which time illegal tobacco came to represent 12.5% of the total Spanish cigarette market, last year it fell to 10.6%. The figure was calculated on the basis of a weekly study carried out in May that gathered 14,983 empty cigarette packets from garbage bins in 58 towns and cities throughout Spain.

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The popularity of contraband cigarettes is largely explained by their price. Somebody who smokes two packs a day now faces a bill of up to €300 a month: buying illegally can save them up to a third of that figure. In Spain, around 80% of the price of a pack is made up of taxes.

Those found guilty of trafficking tobacco or producing illegal cigarettes typically face prison terms of less than two years.

Multinational tobacco firm Phillip Morris, which produces the Marlboro brand, works with the Spanish and EU authorities to pursue illegal cigarette sales, supplying detectives, auditors and lawyers. But it’s an uphill task: “In my village there are more than 10 people who sell cigarettes for €3 a packet,” says María del Mar González, who lives in the small community of Aznalcóllar, in Seville province, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

The Gibraltar connection

The gangs that transport tobacco from Gibraltar into the neighboring town of La Línea de la Concepción, continue their activities, despite a police crackdown on smuggling. Confronted with increased inspections at the border crossing, they instead ship cigarettes out by speedboat.

"You stop the leak in one place and the water pours out somewhere else," is how one customs officer describes the task of trying to stop the smugglers, which is made harder by the alleged refusal of the British authorities to cooperate.

“They have never helped us. Other countries collaborate, but the British are only interested in fraud, and when it is committed in their country,” says a Civil Guard source.

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