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Smokie Bandits on the run

Illegal cigs are rife in Dundalk and Drogheda and are costing state €500 million a year

Early on Saturday morning, Drogheda town centre is buzzing. It’s the Bank Holiday weekend, there are loads of people around, shopping. But there is an underbelly here, rarely seen.

The trade in illicit cigarettes goes on, hidden in plain view and most people are oblivious to it. It’s here in Drogheda, and in Dundalk, if you know where to look and the team of former police officers from Ireland and England are experts in where to get cheap cigarettes.

The team works for tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris and are tasked with test purchasing illegal cigarettes. They travel around Ireland and Britain, hitting towns all over the country and assessing the trade in illicit tobacco. The company wants to know how big the trade is, where the cigarettes are coming from and how they are being sold.

Philip Morris also wants to know the extent of the ‘illegal whites’ – cigarettes that are manufactured in pop up factories close to the Russian border that are only made for the black market.

More importantly, the team has intelligence about the main players in cigarette smuggling in county Louth and the millions of euro they are making from it every year.

Most of the former police officers have worked undercover before. There are two main buyers – a former female detective from England and a man from Eastern Europe who speaks Polish and Latvian. They certainly don’t look like cops and it’s easy to tag along with them as they make their way around Drogheda, building on the research they have done the day before.

The man has been into a number of suspect shops the previous day and has asked to buy cigarettes. He was sold some, but most have told him to come back on Saturday. In the first store, the woman behind the counter recognises him and searches in her coat pocket, pulling out two packs of L&M – a legitimate brand, but most likely smuggled into Ireland via the suitcases of people returning from a trip to Poland or another Eastern European country.

He comes out, meets up with the other members of the team, and throws the two packs into a plastic bag. A former Met inspector writes down the location of the purchase, the cost (€5.50 a pack) and his colleague heads to a second shop. It’s a well-stocked store, and the woman behind the counter chats easily with him as he asks for cheap cigarettes. She tries to sell him some freshly baked bread while she goes in the back to get a couple of packs for him. It’s the same brand, and the same price, and these too are left with the other members of the team.

In Drogheda market, just off the main street, there seems to be no hiding of the illicit trade. Here some of the Irish cigarette sellers are selling illegal whites – cigarettes specifically manufactured for the black market and unavailable in any store in the world.

The female officer and I wander around, pretending to browse, returning to one of the stalls and asking for cigarettes. These ones are dearer – at €6.50 a pack, but represent a significant saving on the usual €10 cost of 20. They’re 821s, specially produced for the black market.

The other members of the team are stunned by the fact the cigarettes are on such public display. The former Met officer says: ‘I don’t think I have seen anything like that before – it’s quite brazen, isn’t it’.

There is no time to discuss the cigarette traders in Drogheda market as the woman has been in contact with a Drogheda man whom she got illegal cigarettes off before.

He’s still in business, by all accounts, and he meets her close to the town centre apartments where he lives. He has a sleeve (200 cigarettes) of illicit whites and he charges €55. All the while, the team sit in a jeep close-by, watching the transaction, which is over in seconds.

The next sting is just moments away as the Eastern European man has contacted a man who has agreed to meet him in a car park close to the Boyne. Unknown to the seller, there are half a dozen former cops watching nearby but he is oblivious as he chats to the buyer in his MH registered car before driving off, having sold him a sleeve of illegals.

And they’re not done yet. Another store, the woman walks in and, having been recognised from the previous day, a man pulls 200 Polish Marlboro out and sells them to her for €55. The team seems to be particularly excited by this as the branding on the Marlboro is new – just a few weeks old – and indicates these are new into the country.

There is one final purchase to make – at a shop just outside the town centre, the woman goes in and comes out with a pouch of Flandria tobacco, available only on the Continent.

On the way to Dundalk, the team chats about the illicit trade in Ireland, North and South, and in Britain. Asian and Eastern European stores are the main outlets in Britain, along with ‘old men in pubs’ but there is also a booming trade via Facebook. In the North ‘some of the little corner shops’ are selling illegal tobacco, while in the South, the markets are among the places to find illegal cigarettes.

In Dundalk, the first stop is another shop. The woman apologies to the buyer and rings a man she knows whom she says will be waiting for him on the Carrick Road. A few minutes later, there is indeed a man standing on the pavement and when we pull over, he comes over to the car and throws 200 L&Ms on the back seat before chatting to the undercover buyer, getting the cash off him (€55) and telling him he is able to get even more, if he needs it.

Back in the town centre, the female operative has managed to buy MGs off a bar worker who tells her that any of the staff will sell them to her, if she’s not there herself. A trip to another pub proves fruitless as the customer who comes in with a hold-all of illegal cigarettes has just left, but will be there around 1pm the following day.

The cigarettes and tobacco are put together into the boot of one of the cars. It’s an impressive haul for a day’s work. The team will send some of them off for testing, the rest will be destroyed. The intelligence they have gathered will be sent to Revenue.

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