Belgian customs officers on Wednesday mounted their biggest-ever operation against counterfeit cigarette production, swooping on 10 illegal sites and making at least 40 arrests.
International gangs have turned Belgium into a production hub for fake cigarettes, falsely packaged as leading brands and sold tax-free to smokers in neighbouring countries, particularly Britain.
In a non-descript industrial park in Aartselaar, on a main road into the port city of Antwerp, officers arrested 18 men in a pre-dawn raid in an unmarked warehouse.
The suspects, from eastern Europe, lived in a ramshackle dormitory inside the plant, working shifts to dry tobacco then pass it through cigarette-rolling machines.
Some were sleeping in their bunks when the armed officers burst in while others were running the machines.
They were led off in handcuffs as senior officers arrived with reporters.
"While this depot was working 24 hours a day, the workers never left the plant, so as not to alert the neighbourhood," said Florence Angelici, spokeswoman for the Belgian finance ministry in charge of the customs service.
Behind her, a partitioned section of the warehouse featured messy bunks, overflowing suitcases and signs of a hastily abandoned breakfast.
"They slept here, worked here, ate here, took their showers -- they didn't leave for weeks, even months," she said.
A vast stock of cigarettes was ready for shipment, apparently to Britain, with packages resembling popular Richmond and Marlboro brands and printed with standard UK health warnings in English.
In total four production sites were found, alongside six more sites used for logistics, to shred raw tobacco or to store supplies like cigarette paper, filters and glue.
Some of the plants were in northern Belgium, in Tongeren, Eeklo and Frasnes-lez-Anvaing -- close to the port and allegedly serving the gang's markets in Britain, France and the Netherlands.
Officials processing the vast haul estimated they had seized tens of millions of cigarettes falsely branded as Marlboro, Richmond, Prince or Regina.
The raids brought the number of illegal cigarette production sites closed down in Belgium so far this year to seven, more than the five raided in all of 2020.
- Syphoning tax revenue -
Last year, more than 400 million cigarettes were seized by Belgian customs but authorities are not crying victory yet over the growing problem.
The haul in the Aartselaar plant underlined the cross-border nature of the trade.
The cigarettes -- which may be even more hazardous than usual for consumers because they are not made to mandated health standards -- were in British-style packaging, but the safety warning notices on the cigarette-rolling machine were in Polish.
The detained suspects hailed from Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria.
Kristian Vanderwaeren, Director General of Belgium's Federal Customs and Excise Administration, attended the raids, which he described as the biggest operation in his agency's history.
For him, the gangs' calculation was a simple one: "The reason that the black market brings in a lot of money is because the taxes are very high -- excise and VAT," or value-added tax, he said.
"A packet of cigarettes costs about eight euros, well, of that, six to seven euros are excise and VAT."
That calculation means a smoker paying four or five euros for a black-market pack of what looks like their favourite brand is getting a cheap deal, with the gang taking its profit from the tax authority's cut.
But Vanderwaeren had a simple message for consumers who think they're onto a good thing.
"Half-price cigarettes are not legal cigarettes. So the product -- whether the tobacco or the filters -- does not comply with (health) standards," he said.
"The sales feed criminal organisations which then use this money to organise trafficking in women, drugs and so on. So don't buy half-price cigarettes: You know they come from criminal organisations."
Counterfeit cigarettes are a growing business, as governments steadily increase tax and customs duty to boost revenue while deterring consumers from picking up a noxious habit that weighs on health systems.
Belgium's own cigarette raids are increasing apace. The customs squad heads a 23-country European alliance that shares intelligence and tracks the gangs.