In waters close to the Bay of Cadiz in the early morning of last Wednesday, the Spanish Tax Agency seized over three million packs of contraband tobacco found in six containers being transported by a tug boat and cargo ship heading for the Huelva coast.
The seizure, carried out as part of Operation ‘Escudo’, is the largest ever conducted by the Spanish Tax Agency and in itself represents between one-fourth and one-third of all the manufactured tobacco products seized by the agency in one year throughout Spain.
In this operation, the Spanish Tax Agency was supported by the British authorities and the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation on the Borders of EU Member States (FRONTEX).
Operation ‘Escudo’ was launched on 24 June when, in international waters 50 miles to the north of Tunisia, three vessels were spotted transferring tobacco.
At the time, investigating officers discovered that the tobacco was being transferred to a cargo ship (the ‘Falkvac’), which, given its characteristics, could not complete a sea voyage independently and, in fact, was being towed by a tug boat (the ‘Eisvogel’).
This transshipment technique – entirely inappropriate for standard and lawful tobacco transshipment activity – immediately arose suspicion among investigators at the Customs Department of the Spanish Tax Agency, which ordered the seizure and analysis of the cargo and transport documentations. Following this analysis, it was found that this international criminal organisation engaged in cigarette smuggling has a significant number of vessels of varying size engaged in this unlawful trafficking activity.
After discreet surveillance of the tug boat and cargo ship, at 01:15 hours on 5 July, a Spanish Tax Agency Customs Surveillance patrol boat intercepted the two vessels in waters close to the Bay of Cadiz as they were supposedly sailing towards a shipyard on the Huelva coast.
Once the officers from the Customs Surveillance Department of the Spanish Tax Agency boarded the two vessels, they discovered that the Falkvag was carrying six containers but sailing without a crew and lacking the essential conditions to sail. At the same time, they also discovered that the tug boat Eisvogel was in contravention of the rules of navigation. Six people were travelling on board the tug boat. All of them were arrested, of which three are Italian, two are Croatian and one is Rumanian.
One feature of the modus operandi employed by this international criminal organisation consists of using a vessel with no engine and unfit to sail as merely a floating platform on which to carry the contraband tobacco. That vessel is steered by a tug boat under the guise of a tow contract, under which the organisation tries to avoid liability and the penalties for the offences committed.
Once the convoy was taken to port, the Customs Surveillance officers registered the goods they found in the containers: over 6,000 crates of tobacco containing over 3,200,000 packs of contraband tobacco, with a possible market value of approximately 12 million euros.
All actions have been reported to the Criminal Investigation Court of Cadiz, and the vessels, seized goods and arrested individuals have also been handed over.