Illegal cigarettes go up in smoke

  • 2001-12-13
  • TBT staff, RIGA
Twenty-five million fake LM, Marlboro and Benson&Hedges cigarettes went up in smoke, but nobody was lighting up and puffing away.

Billed as the largest destruction of seized counterfeits in the Baltics, the Latvian government and the Coalition for Intellectual Property Rights burned the tobacco over several days in early December at a heating facility near Silakrogs.

Andrejs Sonciks, head of the Latvian State Revenue Service, billed the high-profile production as a sign of Latvia's ability to deal with contraband.

But no one has been charged in any of the three cases in which the millions of cigarettes were originally netted.

The Latvian state security police, revenue service, customs and national police all cooperated with the coalition and British American Tobacco to nab the illegal tobacco.

All the cases - including one where smugglers tried to sneak 5.5 million fake Benson&Hedges cigarettes across the border in radiators - have been closed with no charges filed and no convictions.

Despite the fact that only contraband - no criminals - were captured, Interior Minister Mareks Seglins pointed to the smoking tobacco as a shining example of law enforcement.

"I'm extremely pleased with Latvian law enforcement authorities whose persistence and commitment led to the destruction of these fake goods," he said. "I want to hold up this bold action as an example for all Latvian law enforcement officials to follow."

Seglins added that the 25 million cigarettes are only a fraction of what he described as an enormous contraband business.

In mid-November the Sylve, a Cyprus-registered shipping vessel, which last stopped in Riga, was raided in Northern Ireland by British customs who found 40 million cigarettes and a "significant" quantity of vodka.

Twenty million contraband smokes were discovered during a concurrent search in Northern Ireland aboard a second ship, thought to be registered in Cambodia, after it departed Estonia.

A Cambodian-registered ship bound for Latvia was also searched in Aug. 2000, when it tried to ram a customs patrol boat off the coast of Crete.

Investigators discovered the 7 million packs of British-brand cigarettes, worth about $23.8 million, was set to be diverted to a fictitious front company in Latvia before being smuggled into to the United Kingdom.

The British government claims about one in every three cigarettes smoked in the island nation is smuggled.

"Latvia is a major transit corridor for counterfeit goods destined for Western European markets," said Dzintars Kudums, the Parliament's defense and internal affairs committee chairman and a member of the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom party.

The Benson&Hedges bust alone netted more than 120,000 lats ($193,500) worth of fake cigarettes - part of those later burned by the government - hidden in radiators.

But it is barely the tip of the illegal tobacco iceberg.

The year's busts started early, when 4.4 million illegal Prince cigarettes were discovered among packing boards before crossing the border into Latvia.

Then revenue service agents seized 14.4 million Super King and Regal cigarettes hidden inside imported fabric bales, 1.3 million more Regal smokes were tucked away inside sawed timber and 4 million cigarettes were hidden in the ceiling of a trailer.