Gardai close on 'smuggling mastermind' after €14m haul
A Co Louth-based smuggler is the mastermind behind a multi-million-euro attempt to bring a massive shipment of cigarettes illegally into the country.
Customs officers and gardai believe the consignment was destined for distribution on the black market in the UK as well as here.
The shipment of more than 32m cigarettes and 4,500kgs of water pipe tobacco was intercepted by Customs officers, backed by armed gardai from the local Regional Response Unit, early yesterday, less than six hours after a vessel had docked at Drogheda port, Co Louth.
The total retail value of the consignment is reckoned to have been about €14m and it represented a potential loss to the Exchequer in revenue of nearly €13m.
It was the biggest seizure of cigarettes in Europe so far this year.
The Retailers Against Smuggling group, which represents independent retailers in the fight against the black market, said the capture provided further evidence that Ireland had become the number one target for international crime gangs and smugglers, attracted here by low fines and high prices.
No arrests have yet been made but gardai and customs raided a number of premises in the greater Drogheda area following the seizure, including the home of the suspected organiser.
The man, who is well known to both agencies, lives outside Drogheda and is alleged to have been involved in a number of previous cigarette smuggling operations.
The interception followed an international intelligence-gathering operation, which began last autumn.
The operation involved Customs here as well as in the UK along with the garda crime and security branch in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, local gardai and police in several other jurisdictions.
It is believed that the Drogheda man and his associates in this country worked closely with a crime gang based in Liverpool and enlisted the help of other criminals on mainland Europe.
The cigarettes and tobacco were found in the hold of the MV Shingle, when it was boarded by the officers. The Shingle had docked in Drogheda port at 10pm on Monday and was boarded at 3.30am yesterday.
The crew of 12 Ukrainians and one Russian were held on board the vessel. The shipment comprised cigarettes, known as cheap whites, which are legally manufactured but intended for export outside the EU. The tobacco is used in water pipes, or hookahs, and is very popular, particularly in the Middle East, although its use has spread throughout the world.
A close watch was kept on the movements of several suspects for several months as the authorities tried to gather information.It is now known that the shipment was loaded on to the vessel in the port of Koper in southwestern Slovenia last March and was then taken to Lisbon in Portugal.
But the crew ran into difficulties with the port authorities in Lisbon over marine documentation and the vessel was held up there for some time.
It is believed that the vessel was tracked as it travelled across the sea and into Drogheda port where Customs officers and gardai were waiting.
The two agencies are satisfied that a large portion of the consignment was destined to have been shipped out again and handed over to the Liverpool-based crime gang with the rest being sold on the black market on both sides of the Border.
A dissident republican link has been ruled out.
Revenue commissioner Liam Irwin said: "This seizure is the culmination of months of dedicated work and international co-operation involving Revenue authorities and law enforcement agencies across several jurisdictions."
If businesses or members of the public have any information on smuggling or sale of illegal cigarettes or tobacco, they can contact the Revenue on free phone 1800 295295.