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Smuggling linchpin convicted but no one in Ireland charged

smuggled tobacco

First published: February 22, 2010

Source: Irish Times

THE SMOKE SMUGGLERS: It’s not every day that someone admits to defrauding the Irish exchequer by more than €1.5m, but this isn’t what makes the case of Roman Vidal unique, writes PAUL CULLEN

EARLIER THIS month, a 57-year-old businessman was convicted of involvement in a massive smuggling operation that was uncovered when 7.3 million cigarettes were seized in Dublin Port in January 2006.

But the court in which Roman Vidal received a two-year sentence was not in Dublin or any other Irish city. Instead, he was convicted by magistrates near his home in Miami, Florida, and ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in restitution.

Vidal was the linchpin in a vast smuggling network that spanned three continents and saw cigarettes sourced in the Canaries, shipped to Panama and then transported back to Europe via Miami. His case reveals the extent of cigarette smuggling and the depth of involvement in the trade by criminal gangs here.

Vidal never even had to leave home to do his work. His contraband arrived in 730 cases inside a 15-metre metal shipping container, which was stacked among hundreds of others in Miami port. His contact was in Spain and the money to fund the operation was wired from a Portuguese bank into his account. Once the Dublin end of the operation gave the nod, the smuggling operation was ready to begin.

Vidal bought a load of cheap wood flooring, which he loaded on top of the cigarettes, before sending the container on its way across the Atlantic. The bill of landing falsely described the load as flooring and duties of just € 2,900 were paid to Irish Customs when the load arrived in Dublin some weeks later; the real amount due for the cigarettes should have been €1,550,461.20.

Irish Customs officers had been watching traffic from Miami since 2002, when they seized 16 million cigarettes in a container sent from the US port. “Up to then, all our attention was on the Middle East and the Far East, but after this we started looking at other traffic,” says Dave Godwin, head of the Customs Service.

By the time Vidal’s contraband arrived, officers knew what was afoot and allowed the container to pass through Dublin Port. A haulier took the load up to the Border where it was deposited but left uncollected after the Irish end of the operation got cold feet.

The kingpin behind this operation is a leading criminal who has served time in prison and the proceeds were intended for use by dissident Republican groups, according to security sources. He remains at large.

The case is one of many in recent years involving the seizure of vast loads of black-market cigarettes, but it is also typical in that no one in Ireland has been charged with involvement. Securing a conviction is difficult because it can be hard to prove those moving the contraband were aware of the contents of their lorry, boat or container. And even when convictions are secured, the courts are inclined towards leniency, according to investigators. “Unless we get the guys at the top, the view is that they won’t hit people with significant sentences,” says one source. In 2008, for example, Fermanagh man Alan Davenport got a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence after he was stopped while driving a trailer carrying more than three million cigarettes. Another suspended sentence was handed out to a man found carrying three-quarters of a ton of roll-your-own tobacco. A number of cases in relation to high-volume tobacco smuggling are with the DPP.

European figures confirm claims that Ireland is awash with smuggled cigarettes. About 25 per cent of cigarettes consumers here are imported illegally, compared to 6 per cent in Norway, 3 per cent in France, 2 per cent in Spain and 1 per cent in New Zealand. Both Spain and New Zealand have taken concerted measures in recent years to tackle the problem, but here in Ireland, where less has been done, smuggling continues to rise.

One of the attractions of cigarette smuggling vis-a-vis other forms of smuggling is the low level of punishment it attracts. Most of the names that appear twice yearly on the Revenue defaulters’ list in relation to tobacco-related offences are small-time sellers or importers of cigarettes. Some 163 people were convicted in the courts last year, and 33 of these received custodial sentences. But only 14 of these actually served time while 19 were given suspended sentences. Another seven smugglers were told to do community service.

Health groups also claim the tobacco industry is complicit in smuggling, arguing that the companies involved have a vested interest in promoting their product, regardless of whether duty has been paid.

Internationally, some of the world’s biggest tobacco companies have been implicated in smuggling, and expensive settlements have been reached with the EU. In Ireland, the industry denies any involvement with smuggling and is prominent in campaigning for a clampdown on counterfeit cigarettes.

Some of the big companies are liable to make seizure payments to the exchequer if their cigarettes are found to have been smuggled without tax stamps, but the last time this happened was in 2006.

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