Customs: Raid on illegal cigarette factory in Vienna

Blümel: Massive blow against international cigarette mafia – thanks to investigators

In the course of a search on a warehouse in Vienna’s 21st municipal district on 12 November 2020, in which units of the Vienna Police were involved, the Vienna customs investigation team seized a total of 13 tonnes of tobacco and numerous items of equipment. The warehouse was obviously being used as an illegal cigarette production site, which was still in the process of being set up and had only been operational for a short time. During the search, one person who attempted to escape was arrested.

“This represents a massive blow against the international organised cigarette mafia. I thank the customs investigation team for the magnificent work they have done on this case to protect consumers and the legitimate economy,” said Finance Minister Gernot Blümel.

Cigarette production in warehouse

The investigators became aware of the illegal cigarette factory due to specific information from a whistle-blower. The team had to use force to open up the locked building. Inside the 1,300 m3 warehouse was a complete production system for manufacturing cigarettes, together with sleeping and living quarters for the workforce. The time between the customs officials opening up the building and reaching the interior was used by those present to enter a neighbouring building through an opening in a plasterboard wall and then to make their escape. Vigilant officials were later able to arrest one fugitive of Greek nationality.

Numerous items of equipment seized

The main item of equipment, the cigarette production machine, had been manufactured in the Czech Republic, according to information provided by an expert from Philip Morris, for whose support the Austrian Ministry of Finance [BMF] is very grateful. The other items of equipment are from Turkey and the Asian area. Following the closure of legal cigarette factories in eastern Europe, this cigarette production machine had come into the hands of criminals via murky channels. Unemployed workers and machine operators are recruited by criminals, and work for a pittance in these illegal production sites, living a wretched existence. Personal items are taken away from them and during the weeks or months of their employment they are not allowed to leave the cigarette factory.

Electricity provided by a diesel generator set in order to avoid attracting attention

The daily production quantities achieved with the cigarette production and packing machine amounted to 2,000 to 2,500 cigarettes, with seven workers required to operate the machine. A tobacco cutting machine and a drying cylinder were also found on the premises, as well as a diesel generator set and an air compressor. To avoid attracting the attention of the electricity supply company as a result of the machines’ high consumption, the machinery was operated not through the public network but by an independent diesel generator set. The noise was blocked off from the outside by means of blanket insulation attached to the walls.

Jamming transmitter used to hinder investigators

All items were seized and removed by the customs officers. A jamming transmitter used by the criminals was also secured. This was intended to render ineffective any electronic devices for locating mobile phones or radio signals of the investigators.

1.5 million euros in sales within 10 weeks

The expert estimates that the cigarette production machine had been in operation for 10 weeks, and that during this period about 52,000 cigarettes had been produced, taken away and sold. A highly profitable business, with sales to date amounting to at least 1.5 million euros on the black market.

13 tonnes of tobacco secured

A further 13 tonnes of fine-cut tobacco were secured, as well as numerous pallets containing cigarette filters, packs and foil, which would have been sufficient to produce a further 65,000 cigarettes for the black market, earning a further 2 million euros for the criminals. By way of comparison: in 2019 a total of 25,000 cigarettes were secured, as well as 5.9 tonnes of tobacco which would have been sufficient to produce about 30,000 additional cigarettes. Lastly, in 2018 a similar illegal production site was discovered in the St. Pölten area, where a total of 32.8 million (sic) tonnes of tobacco were seized.

Tax evasion in the amount of 3.5 million euros

The duty in Austria on the secured and already processed tobacco is in the amount of 3.5 million euros. The investigators assume that the criminals have a distribution network covering the whole of Europe. Those chiefly responsible can expect, in addition to payments of millions of euros in tax arrears, to face court proceedings for organised tax evasion and operating an illegal cigarette factory, offences which carry a maximum penalty of up to 10 million euros in fines and a jail sentence of up to 5 years. The investigation into the criminals behind this operation is in full swing.