57 million illegal cigarettes seized in joint operation

Australian Border Force, Queensland Police Service

Australian Border Force, Queensland Police Service

Almost 60 million cigarettes have been seized as part of a joint operation targeting illicit tobacco, significantly disrupting a large criminal syndicate operating in multiple states and territories.

The joint investigation involved officers from the Australian Border Force (ABF), the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), the Queensland Police Service (QPS) and NSW Police Force.

The complex investigation began in June 2017, following information received from ACIC which uncovered large scale illicit tobacco importation and money laundering undertaken by a serious organised crime syndicate with links to South East Asia.

The ten subsequent seizures ranged from 38,000 cigarettes to more than 20 million in each consignment. Some were concealed among legitimate goods while others filled entire shipping containers that were deliberately declared as other items.

In total, the cigarettes represented more than $40 million in evaded duty.

As a result of this investigation, a number of individuals have been identified and possible charges will be laid. On March 1 this year, the QPS arrested two men on the Gold Coast and it is expected that they will face charges relating to money laundering.

ABF Superintendent Leo Lahey from the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce said the operation was an example of what can be achieved when we pool the resources of our state, federal and international law enforcement and intelligence partners.

“These seizures also highlight the critical need to combat the illicit tobacco trade. This work will be tasked to the new multi-agency ABF-led Illicit Tobacco Task Force which was stood up this week. Working collaboratively across agencies in this way will always be critical to success,” Superintendent Lahey said.

The Illicit Tobacco Taskforce combines the resources of the ABF, Department of Home Affairs, ACIC, the Australian Taxation Office, AUSTRAC and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

ACIC Queensland State Manager Charlie Carver said serious and organised crime groups are more attracted to the Australian illicit tobacco market than ever before.

“Organised crime has no borders and these significant results demonstrate the benefits of state, territory and Commonwealth agencies working together,” Mr Carver said.

Detective Superintendent Jon Wacker of the Queensland Police Service Drug and Serious Crime Group said organised crime syndicates engineer a transnational grab for cash through a combination of legitimate and criminal enterprises.

“We will continue to target and disrupt organised crime groups involved in money laundering as these proceeds are used to distribute illicit commodities causing great harm to our community,” Detective Superintendent Wacker said.

“Engaging in the illegal tobacco trade supports organised crime syndicates and we will exploit every opportunity to dismantle their networks and recover funds and prosecute organised crime syndicates.

The maximum penalty for tobacco smuggling is ten years imprisonment, and penalties of up to five times the amount of duty evaded can also be imposed by the courts.

People with information about the illicit importation of tobacco should contact Border Watch at www.australia.gov.au/borderwatch