Belgian customs carried out an operation on Wednesday aimed at counterfeiting cigarettes on an unprecedented scale in the country, during which several clandestine production sites were closed and 45 people arrested.

The country has become a hub for cigarette trafficking, destined for neighboring countries.

In an industrial area of ​​Aartselaar, along an artery leading to the port city of Antwerp, customs officers arrested 17 people of Ukrainian or Bulgarian nationality during a pre-dawn raid in a sweatshop.

The men were housed in a dilapidated dormitory in the warehouse, working in shifts to dry the tobacco and pass it through rolling machines.

The production of contraband cigarettes, a purely illegal but very lucrative business

- RTBF info (@RTBFinfo) August 5, 2021

More than 28 million cigarettes seized, according to a first estimate

"This warehouse operates 24 hours a day, and workers do not leave it, so as not to give any sign of suspicious activity in the neighborhood," said Florence Angelici, spokesperson for the Belgian Ministry of Finance. "And so they will sleep, work, eat, take their shower on the spot, without going out for weeks, even months," she added.

A large supply of cigarettes was ready to leave for the UK, in packets mimicking those of major brands and displaying the country's health warnings. A total of four illegal production sites were discovered, as well as several sites used for logistics, to grind tobacco or store cigarette paper, filters and glue. The workshops, in addition to Aartselaar, were located in Tongeren (east), Eeklo (north) and Frasnes-lez-Anvaing (west), locations providing easy access to the British, French and Dutch markets.

A total of 45 people were arrested, some of whom were already known for similar offenses in other European states, the finance ministry said in a statement Wednesday evening, adding that "most" were of Ukrainian nationality.

According to a "first estimate", more than 28 million cigarettes were seized, but the inventory is still in progress, adds the ministry.

Contraband cigarettes were sold under the Marlboro, Richmond, Prince and Regina brands.

"The black sale (of cigarettes) brings in a lot of money"

The number of counterfeit cigarette production sites closed by the Belgian authorities now stands at seven since the start of the year, compared to five for the whole of 2020. More than 400 million illicit cigarettes have been seized by the Belgian customs last year, against 110 million in 2018. Present during the operation Wednesday, the general administrator of Belgian customs, Kristian Vanderwaeren, describes it as the most important ever carried out by his administration. “The black sale (of cigarettes) brings in a lot of money, since the taxes are very high,” he explains. Here "a pack of cigarettes costs around 8 euros, and of this sum, six to seven euros are excise and VAT".

Packets of contraband cigarettes sell for 4 to 5 euros.

"Half-price cigarettes are not legal cigarettes, and the product, whether tobacco or filter, does not meet health standards," warns Mr. Vanderwaeren, whose services work with those of twenty other European countries to track down the networks involved in this illegal trade.

In addition, sales "feed criminal organizations, which subsequently use this money to organize trafficking in women, drug trafficking," warns the person in charge.

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