Focus turns to 'middlemen' in crackdown on illegal tobacco
GARDAI have set up a nationwide operation to clamp down on key players in the growing trade in illegal cigarettes and diesel laundering.
More than 40 searches have already been carried out by officers around the country as gardai focus on the network of "middlemen" who are selling the illicit goods to the public.
Customs officers reckon that the illicit cigarette trade is costing the economy around €250m a year in lost revenue but the industry claims the losses are much higher at an estimated €569m.
Operation Decipher was set up last September on the orders of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and is being co-ordinated by senior officers from the national bureau of criminal investigation.
But the raids and searches are being organised at local level by district superintendents, and the garda authorities believe Decipher is already beginning to make a heavy impact on the gangsters behind the trade.
The links between the illegal racket and organised crime were highlighted at a conference last week by Det Supt George Kyne, whose officers are working closely with the Customs and industry figures to curb the growth in illicit goods.
Dissident republican groups are also known to be making profits from the trade, particularly in border counties, and gardai are liaising with the PSNI to combat the cross-border connection.
Gangsters operating in the border counties have been coming under increasing pressure as a result of the additional garda activity in the Louth-Monaghan area in the wake of the murder last January of Det Gda Adrian Donohoe. And this is now being stepped up by Decipher, with one raid resulting in the seizure of 1.2 million cigarettes as well as a haul of stolen clothing and up to €50,000 in cash in Co Louth, while a diesel-laundering plant was also uncovered.
A similar search operation in Cork led to the seizure of 40,000 illicit cigarettes, a further haul of clothing and footwear, and €60,000 in cash.
Gardai said they were focusing their efforts on the "middle men" involved in the sale of cigarettes through shops, market stalls and door-to-door businesses.
Raids are also being carried out on garages suspected of selling laundered diesel.
Gardai said their clampdown had been boosted by the introduction of additional powers in the new Finance Act, to assist officers in stopping and searching people suspected of being in possession of illegal goods.