Smokes and fires: How warring tobacco gangs ship millions of cigarettes in plain sight

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Boxes stacked high, one after another, front to back in a fully laden shipping container. Just one glance reveals the contents are highly sought after on the black market, yet there’s no attempt at hiding it.

Inside is carton upon carton of illegal cigarettes, 10 million in total. The Manchester brand looks legitimate, proclaiming itself as a “house of quality”, but it’s all a ruse to avoid tax.

An Australian Border Force officer inspects illegal cigarettes smuggled in a shipping container.Credit: Joe Armao

Each pack sells for as little as $15 at some tobacco stores – less than half the price of lawful smokes. Even at those cut prices, the profits are worth tens of millions of dollars in the underworld.

In a nondescript warehouse at the Port of Melbourne, Australian Border Force officers are constantly uncovering huge importations like this as they attempt to stem record quantities of untaxed tobacco from flooding into the country.

More than 1.7 billion illegal cigarettes were seized across Australia in the past financial year, according to Border Force. Since July this year, there have been more than 350 million seized, much of it arriving from ports in Asia and the Middle East.

As criminal gangs fight for a bigger slice of the market, the cigarettes that make it through undetected are bound for the lit end of a match – either in the hands of a smoker or an arsonist.

Manchester cigarettes look legitimate, but it is a tax-free brand.Credit: Joe Armao

Tobacco shops in suburban shopping strips across Melbourne have become targets for firebombings in recent months, as the underworld turf war for control of the illicit cigarette trade has exploded into violence. Extortion and revenge attacks have become commonplace.

Last week, 25 million cigarettes were found coming by ship into Melbourne – and a similar number are detected every week, according to officials at the container examination facility, the port’s detection point for illegal cargo.

Much of it arrives just like this: in taped up, branded boxes in a 12 metre-long container with no attempts at concealment.

Golding’s view.Credit: Matt Golding

But some of the discoveries are not as conspicuous.

During a tour of Melbourne’s port area, The Sunday Age was also shown illegal tobacco and cigarettes hidden in mattresses, carpets and even buckets of pickles made in Lebanon.

A set of fence posts may look perfectly normal, but they were purpose-built to hide thousands of Marlboro cigarettes – the metal so thin it almost buckled when touched.

“The majority comes in by sea cargo,” Australian Border Force commander Clint Sims said this week. “Certainly, the syndicates and organised crime networks we’re dealing with … we believe facilitate large volume, sea cargo importations.”

One of the weapons used to uncover any illegitimate shipments is X-ray technology that can peek inside the contents of a shipping container.

Shipments chosen for inspection are driven by truck inside a warehouse tucked away from the port’s main activities, where a large MRI-like machine scans the load.

It produces a detailed cross-section of the interior, which analysts then pore over in search of any anomalies.

Often they are not sure what they are looking for, but with keen eyes they will sometimes find weapons, drugs and other contraband – even cars trying to circumvent import duties.

But illegal cigarettes can be far easier to spot, particularly when they come through in bulk.

This Moonee Ponds tobacco shop is one of dozens targeted by arsonists in recent months.Credit: Nine News

In the case of the container packed to the brim with ten million Manchesters, the picture on the screen simply looked like a giant grid of thin lines. Even before cracking the doors, they knew what was inside.

Much of the time, these individual discoveries are not prosecuted, such is the sheer number of cigarettes coming into the country in an attempt to overwhelm detection efforts. Charges usually only follow if they can be connected to major syndicates.

The penalties for importing large amounts of illegal tobacco are much lower than for drugs such as cocaine, making it an attractive volume business for syndicates who then use the profits to fund other crime.

Crime groups also know that not every container can be checked. Melbourne’s port is the busiest in the country for commercial shipping, with thousands of containers arriving every day. There is only enough staff and technical capacity to check 1 per cent of them.

A shipping container full of illegal cigarettes at the Port of Melbourne.Credit: Joe Armao

However, it does not mean the effort is wasted. Any illegal cigarettes that officers find are thrown into skips, rather than making it to the streets, with the importers sent a letter informing them that their goods have been seized.

The three cigarette products most commonly imported illegally are Manchester, Marlboro and the Chinese-made brand Double Happiness, according to authorities.

“We see counterfeit cigarettes made and produced for a black market, we’ve also seen legitimate cigarettes that are sold in places that don’t have any regulations [imported to Australia],” Sims said this week.

Victoria Police recently introduced the Lunar Taskforce to combat the growing illegal tobacco trade and war for control among rival crime groups, which has resulted in almost 30 arson attacks.

Homicide detectives are also probing whether the recent shooting deaths of Mohammed ‘Afghan Ali’ Keshtiar and Robert Issa are connected.

The taskforce has made a string of arrests and seized hundreds of thousands of cigarettes, along with other contraband.

Detective Superintendent Jason Kelly said that a “large portion” of Victoria’s 800-plus tobacco stores had been infiltrated by organised crime to sell the black market cigarettes.

“Our information is that there has been an increase in tobacco stores in recent times,” Kelly said this week.

Marlboro cigarettes are one of the top three brands for illegal importers.Credit: Joe Armao

“If you start paying attention, you may see more popping up in your local strips. And so that probably indicates that it’s such a lucrative industry to make money.”

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