Customs 2020: largest number of smuggled cigarettes in the institution’s history was seized last year

Even the old-timers of the Lithuanian Customs do not remember such a tense year. In addition to the extremely difficult working conditions caused by the global pandemic, the officers also confronted in 2020 a massive increase in cigarette smuggling flows. As a result, the largest amount of illegal tobacco in the history of the Lithuanian Customs (16.6 million packets of cigarettes) was seized last year.

The analysts of the Customs Criminal Service (CCS) assessed the results of last year’s fight against cigarette smuggling: almost all forecasts and trends announced already in autumn 2019 were confirmed and became more evident last year.

Firstly, as predicted, the customs officers faced in 2020 the unprecedented, both in scale and in the variety of modes of transport, flows of the smuggled cigarettes from Belarus. The customs authorities managed to get prepared for this challenge timely and properly: the Lithuanian customs officers have been beating the records of the seizures of the smuggled cigarettes already for the second year in a row. Upon counting the numbers of the cigarettes seized by the customs criminalists in pre-trial investigations, it has appeared that last year the officers caught almost 60 million euros worth of the illegal tobacco, totalling 16.6 million packets. Incidentally, the year 2019 was also record-breaking with the corresponding seizure of 8.2 million packets of the smuggled cigarettes (compared to 6 million in 2018).  Also, 28.4 tonnes of the tobacco were seized in 2020 (21.6 tonnes in 2019).

The number of the pre-trial investigations into the smuggling of the tobacco products also increased significantly last year: the customs criminalists initiated 95 of them (with 68 initiated the year before, and 49 in 2018).

Structurally, the amount of the Belarusian tobacco in the overall smuggling flow is also increasing consistently. Almost all illegal cigarettes (93%) seized last year were manufactured in Belarus. In the meantime, the Belarusian tobacco accounted for 85% in 2019 (up from 61% in 2018).

The ban on trade in mint cigarettes, which entered into force in the EU in May 2020, has affected the cigarette smuggling flows. Among the illegal tobacco seized by the customs officers, the number of the mint cigarettes increased: if they accounted for 3% of all cigarettes in 2019, they totalled already 9% in 2020.

However, the smuggling of heated tobacco (so-called “heets”) has remained insignificant, with less  than 1% of the total amount of the tobacco products seized both in 2019 and 2020. Nonetheless, the illegal flow of these tobacco products also tends to increase: one pre-trial investigation into the smuggling of the “heets” was launched in 2019, and already 3 in 2020.

Over the past few years, the territorial tendencies of the seizures of the smuggled cigarettes have changed completely. If, as early as 2018, the greatest part of the illegal tobacco (34%) was seized in the pre-trial investigations inside the country, since 2019, the “hottest” zone of the fight against shadow has become the border with Belarus, where 54% of all smuggled tobacco was caught that year. And in 2020, already 64% of the total amount of the illegal tobacco was seized here.

In 2020, another tendency of recent years, i.e. the increase of smuggled cargoes carried at the same time, became even more evident. The illegal tobacco was mostly transported last year by cargo trucks or rail transport (also because of pandemic or quarantine restrictions on travel by passenger cars). As a result, the customs criminalists often used to catch particularly large quantities of the cigarettes during one operation.

In this way, on 19-23 March 2020 alone, the customs criminalists seized in Marijampolė County and Šalčininkai three trucks with 2 million packets of the cigarettes worth 7.3 million euros.

And on 16 September, the CCS officers seized during one operation in Raigardas and at the border with Poland three more trucks with 1 million packets worth 3.6 million euros.

Last year, smugglers used a wide range of tactics for transporting the illegal cargoes: from blatantly  impudent (when the cigarettes, usually in trucks, were transported without any masking) to sophisticated hiding places made by using vehicle structures (e.g. air tanks for pneumatic brake system of truck) or by hiding in transported butaphoric goods.

So last year, the officers found the smuggled cigarettes concreted into foundation blocks carried by rail, building cement blocks, or in various cargoes with timber (firewood, planks, particle boards, tabletops). They also were detected in liquid fertilizers or vegetable oil tanks, aluminium foil rolls or alumina powder drums, carbon filter cargoes or bags with charcoal, in the cargoes with gypsum sheets, metal beams, foam, glass wool, plastic pipes, furniture, peat, etc.

The CCS analysts predict that, taking into account the scale of cigarette production in Belarus, the volume and intensity of the smuggling flows will not decrease this year either.

Rail transport, by which the large quantities of particularly intricately disguised smuggled cigarettes were actively transported this year, will remain a relevant area requiring increased attention from the customs officers.