Twenty-two arrests as two illicit tobacco factories manufacturing 13 different brands of cigarettes are dismantled

A joint operation between the National Police, the Tax Agency and the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Bulgaria

  • The detainees transported tobacco in bulk from Bulgaria and, once in Spain, they were transformed into cigarettes in the different factories they had in Catalonia with the necessary machinery to carry out the first stage -mixing the tobacco according to the brand -and second step- transforming the mixed loose tobacco into packets of cigarettes and, finally, in cigarette cartons.
  • The cigarettes were distributed in various European Union countries -mainly Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain and the economic benefits were laundered through a business network
  • The leader of the organisation, who had a network of companies ranging from housing construction to the transport of all type of goods and the purchase of companies abroad, had more than 200 workers dedicated to housing construction
  • During their active period, the workers lived inside the warehouses with the doors closed, without windows and were so isolated that they did not even know which country they were in

13th May 2019.- Customs Surveillance officers and the National Police, in collaboration with the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior, have dismantled an international criminal organisation of Bulgarian origin, specialised in illegal cigarette manufacturing in Catalonia, and subsequently distributed in different countries of the European Union. The operation has enabled the arrest of 22 people, 15 of whom are Ukrainian, two Bulgarian, three Spanish, a Moldavian and a Moroccan. During the operation nine properties were searched, all in Catalonia.

Manufacture of illegal tobacco

Investigations began in June 2017 when investigators were made aware of the existence of a criminal group from Bulgaria, organised in order to commit allegedly criminal activities involving offences of smuggling, offences against intellectual property, money laundering, forming part of a criminal organisation and offences against the Public Treasury.

The information received indicated that members of the organisation would travel from Bulgaria to Spain with the aim of establishing various factories for the manufacture of illegal tobacco and creating a national and international network of distribution for of this product. The bulk tobacco was transported from Bulgaria, without being subjected to the relevant customs controls, and warehouses in Spain were used for the storage of loose tobacco and to create factories dedicated to its transformation into cigarettes.

Subsequently, it was distributed in European Union countries, mainly Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain. Both the raw materials and the machinery necessary to create these factories were transported from Bulgaria to Spain through land or sea. The economic profit obtained from this illegal activity was laundered through a network of instrumental companies. Credit cards were also used to commit fraud in different establishments.

Over 200 people worked for the leader of the organisation

As a result of this initial information, a joint investigation began, to determine how the criminal organisation had three industrial premises in Spain. Two of them were in the town of San Quirico del Vallés, in the province of Barcelona, and were used as warehouses, whereas the third was in Constantí, in the province of Tarragona. The latter housed the illegal cigarette factory and it was operational in periods of a few months only, which made detection difficult.

During the two years that the investigation lasted, the agents verified that the leader of the dismantled group was perfectly established in Spain and had developed a network of legal businesses which were used as a cover for his criminal activity. This person, together with other people he trusted, amongst whom were a Spaniard and a Moldavian, had a network of companies dedicated to building houses, road transportation of all types of goods and the purchase of companies abroad. The aforementioned had more than 200 workers dedicated to the construction of luxury homes both in Spain and Bulgaria and lorry drivers from both national and international logistics companies.

In addition, the leader of the organisation had acquired a road transport company in Mali and was negotiating with South African citizens, which highlights his special interest in investing part of his profits in Africa.

As there was such a wide range of legal activity, the investigators were obliged to undertake highly detailed work in order to establish which part of the organization's activity was legal and which was not. For example, the organisation used fruit lorries heading for Seville to transport tobacco to the region of Andalusia.

The organisation used encrypted messages through specific applications for mobile devices and, on their journeys used powerful inhibitors which were able to sweep up to 16 different frequencies, which shows the high level of specialisation of the group.

9 searches and two dismantled centres

Once the agents were able to disentangle the illegal activity from the legal entity, a coordinated police operation was planned in order to arrest the members of this criminal organisation.

The operation, which involved 9 entries and searches by court order, enabled the arrest of 22 people, the dismantling of two centres dedicated to the clandestine manufacture of 13 different brands of cigarettes, and the seizure of abundant material for manufacturing cigarettes, in addition to cigarette packets, prepared tobacco, loose tobacco, top of the range cars, cash and a large amount of documentation.

At the time of the search of the illegal factory, there were 14 Ukrainian citizens and one Moldavian working inside. In addition, a Bulgarian citizen was working as a supervisor or controller. Meanwhile, in Sabadell (Barcelona), Galicia and Seville the three lorry drivers who habitually carried out the final product distribution tasks were arrested. A lorry was seized in Mercasevilla with 437,500 different cigarette packs of three different brands.

The warehouse used as an illegal factory had another built structure inside in order to deafen the noise of the machines. In addition, it had a residence area for the workers, consisting of compartments (beds, toilets, showers) and a communal area with a kitchen. Furthermore, the Bulgarian controller or foreman was located outside of this internal structure, with a different compartment for exclusive use.

The factory had machinery for what is known as the "primary phase" (the mix of tobacco that is in cigarettes according to brands) and " secondary phase "(transformation of the mixed loose tobacco in cigarettes, then in packs and, finally, in cartons of 10 packs). A second warehouse was found with auxiliary machinery for the treatment of loose tobacco and abundant material to package tobacco destined for smoking in pipes.

The warehouses were completely closed as a security measure

During the active period, workers lived in the interior of the warehouses in total secrecy, behind the closed doors of the internal structure and with no windows. Due to this, workers could not communicate with the outside world.. They even had their mobile phones withdrawn and some of them stated that they did not know which country they were in. All of this forms part of the security measures adopted by the criminal organisation. These people were classed as “residents only" in national territory and, therefore, they were not authorised to work. They were brought to Spain by road after reaching the European Union area on flights from Ukraine.

The production capacity was so great that 13 different brands were discovered with inscriptions in Spanish and English. Tobacco for water-pipes or shishas of a prestigious Arabic brand was also falsified. In consultation with sector sources during the operation, it was confirmed that there had never been a dismantling of an illegal factory before that falsified such a quantity of tobacco related products. This case is both exceptional and unheard-of to date in Spain.

In one day, the factory was able to manufacture enough packs to complete a lorry cargo, such as that seized in Seville, which was transporting a total of 437,500 packs.

The seized cigarettes had a value of 6,586,401.65 euros, which represents a fraud of 5,140,886.50 euros, to which it is necessary to add the value of the seized machinery for the production of cigarettes when the appropriate assessment is due.

The rubbish and remains generated by the production system were stored in large boxes on pallets in the warehouse located in Calle Penedés in San Quirico del Vallés (Barcelona). They were probably awaiting collection and transportation to another location by one of the lorries used by the organisation. This warehouse was also employed as a store for the material needed to package tobacco, such as the pallets of falsified cartons of various tobacco brands and rolls of paper (white, silver and transparent).

Finally, the final product was subsequently distributed through lorries that made journeys to Galicia, Andalusia, the United Kingdom and Germany with numerous security measures, making towing changes in unpopulated areas.

The investigation was supervised by the 5th Court of Instruction in Sabadell.

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