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WCO announces the results of its first global operation against illicit trade in tobacco

Brussels, 13 October 2014

Press Release

The first global Customs operation focused on the illicit trade in tobacco resulted in the seizure of 593 million cigarettes, 77 tons of smoking tobacco, 31 tons of raw tobacco, 15 tons of water pipe tobacco, 5 tons of chewing tobacco, and 2.5 tons of hand rolling and pipe tobacco. Three production machines were also seized, along with rolling papers, filters and other components used to manufacture cigarettes. Moreover, more than 100 criminals were arrested and 35 investigations are still ongoing in vital effort to disrupt criminals and dismantle the networks behind this trade.

"Operation Gryphon highlights the challenges posed by the illicit trade in tobacco and tobacco products," said Kunio Mikuriya, the Secretary General of the WCO. "The Operation clearly demonstrated the leadership role played by Customs administrations across the globe in combating this scourge," added Mikuriya.

Initiated and coordinated by the WCO, 93 Customs administrations took part in Operation GRYPHON which began on 1 October 2013 and ran for six months, focusing on the application of core Customs legislation, powers and competencies across the entire range of Customs control and clearance processes, including checks being conducted on duty-free outlets, free zones, stores, bonded warehouses, and means of transport.

Officials of the WCO’s Regional Intelligence Liaison Office (RILO) Network, covering all six regions of the WCO, contributed to the success of the Operation, in particular by facilitating and coordinating information and Intelligence exchange at regional level. The RILO network proved to be an asset for global operational communication and clearly shows that Customs administrations have a unique infrastructure at their disposal to deal with the threats posed by illicit trade.

Governments lose large amounts of revenue as a result of the illicit trade in tobacco products, evidenced by the fact that the street value of the cigarettes seized during Operation GRYPHON corresponds to a potential profit of approximately 93 million euro for the criminal syndicates involved in this form of illicit trade.

Seizures included genuine branded cigarettes, counterfeit cigarettes, and brands associated with the illicit ‘cheap whites’ category of cigarettes. The 10 largest cigarette seizures occurred in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America, and the largest quantities of illegal cigarettes were transported in sea containers, trains or lorries, with smaller amounts detected in cars, air passengers’ luggage, and postal shipments.

Reports indicate that smugglers used very sophisticated concealment methods by camouflaging illicit tobacco products in a variety of cover loads, including fertilizer, glassware, clothing, charcoal, transformers, foodstuffs, timber, and sometimes even legal cigarettes! Many of these cover loads are often of low value in order to ensure a higher profit for the smugglers.

Operation GRYPHON confirmed that free trade zones also play an important role in the illicit smuggling of cigarettes. Consignments arriving in these zones are subsequently repacked into other containers, enabling the illicit cigarettes to be ‘lost’ or disappear. They then leave the zone as low-value goods (e.g., textiles, etc.), either misdeclared or concealed in other shipments.

During the Operation, containers with double identities, i.e. duplicate container numbers, were also discovered. This form of ‘identity theft’ entails using the identities of import and/or export companies with a good reputation, as such companies are less likely to raise the suspicions of Customs officials. Although not a new phenomenon, Customs should remain vigilant about smugglers using this method to trick them.

Another interesting fact that came to light during the Operation were shipments of cigarettes destined for conflict areas, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine. Twenty-one containers bound for Syria could not be traced after arriving in the country – a clear case of smugglers taking advantage of conflict zones, where Customs controls may be in temporary disarray.

Participating administrations monitored cross-border shipments of tobacco products using risk assessment techniques. High risk shipments were either checked or an alert was sent to the importing country recommending that they monitor the suspect container and inspect its contents. The skilled use of risk management and effective Customs cooperation were the key contributors to the success of Operation GRYPHON.