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Tuesday, 25 December, 2001, 11:23 GMT
Irish border smugglers hit hard
Many fake items are destroyed by customs
Many counterfeit items are destroyed by customs
After a series of successful Customs raids on fuel laundering rackets and cigarette smuggling rings, BBC News Online's Jane Bardon looks at the net results.

During 2001 customs officers in Northern Ireland seized thousands of gallons of smuggled diesel, millions of smuggled cigarettes, bootleg liquor, fake CDs, DVDs, computer games and football team merchandise.


Even some of the local tobacco producers have said they've noticed in their sales that we are making an impact on the illegal trad

Martin McDonnell
Customs and Excise
In December fuel laundering rackets - said to be making millions a year in border counties - were targeted as part of Operation Spendthrift, co-ordinated with the authorities in the Irish Republic.

The British and Irish authorities promised to keep the pressure on, and a few days later, 80 million smuggled cigarettes were seized as a ship from Europe docked in County Louth.

Weekly open-air markets at Jonesboro in County Armagh and Nutts Corner in County Antrim have come in for special attention by police and customs officers.

Police and customs officers have successfully raided markets
Police and customs officers have successfully raided markets

Thousands of pounds worth of smuggled booty has been seized.

Illegal CD and DVD copying operations have also been closed down.

Northern Ireland Security Minister Jane Kennedy, who heads the Organised Crime Task Force, set up following the establishment of a criminal assets recovery agency, said she took the issue seriously.

She said the illegal trade was not only supporting organised crime, but was also the lifeblood of loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations.

In November 40 million contraband cigarettes brought into County Down through Warrenpoint harbour, and another haul of 20 million cigarettes seized in Dundalk, were linked to the dissident republican paramilitary Real IRA.

It opposes the peace process and is actively involved in a terror campaign in Northern Ireland and in England.

Another dissident group, the Continuity IRA, said it carried out a bomb attack on a Customs office in Enniskillen last week.

Counterfeit CDs and tapes are manufactured for the Christmas market
Counterfeit CDs and tapes are manufactured for the Christmas market

Recent successes in Northern Ireland have been modelled on a series of high-profile raids on criminal gangs in the Irish Republic by the Criminal Assets Bureau.

The seizures north and south have hit the coffers of organised crime and the paramilitary organisations and aim to bring trade back to legal petrol and tobacco retailers.

But what of the seized contraband cigarettes and diesel?

Northern Ireland Customs and Excise spokesman Martin McDonnell said cigarettes and fuel were the main commodities being smuggled into the province.

He said: "The fuel mostly comes from the Republic of Ireland, where the duties are lower. Much of the diesel is laundered - agricultural fuel from which the smugglers have tried to remove the identification dyes.

"Many of the counterfeit CDs and computer games are home produced."

Differential in north-south diesel prices has led to smuggling epidemic
Differential in north-south diesel prices has led to smuggling epidemic
Mr McDonnell said although Customs felt it had been very successful in curbing a growing trade in smuggled and counterfeit goods, the relatively small amount of valid items seized left little scope for recovering the cost of the crackdown operations.

He said: "The 40 million cigarettes seized in Warrenpoint sounds like a lot, but when you think about recycling them into another product, it really isn't much.

"Seized cigarettes are shredded for re-use as compost and when larger amounts are seized, they are made into pellets which can be burnt as power station fuel.

"But, often in the bigger scheme of things, not enough of the goods are seized to make it worthwhile recycling them into other products."

Mr McDonnell said much of the fuel seized had been rendered useless at laundering plants and had to be incinerated.

Uncontaminated fuel, which has been illegally brought across the border, is sold to the oil companies for re-use, and the proceeds are paid to the Treasury.

Dissident republican paramilitaries have been linked to cigarette smuggling
Dissident republican paramilitaries have been linked to cigarette smuggling
Much of the alcohol seized had come from illegal bottling plants where bootleg liquor was being produced, or legitimate brands were being diluted with another liquid, Mr McDonnell said.

Most contraband alcohol was too dangerous to re-sell because it could contain poisonous contaminants.

Mr McDonnell said: "It is treated as a hazardous chemical and disposed of by contractors who handle hazardous waste."

In one incident this year 26,000 litres of alcohol, which was being illegally bottled under high street brand names, was seized.

Crushed

Mr McDonnell said counterfeit CDs, videos, games consoles and watches had an impact on the legitimate trade so they were destroyed after raids.

They were crushed or shredded to render them useless by scrap contractors.

Games consoles, cds and videos are shredded after seizures
Games consoles, cds and videos are shredded after seizures
The main return gained by the Treasury from Customs raids comes from the sale of the few roadworthy vehicles seized during the foiling of smuggling operations.

They are sold for re-use outside the UK or for scrap.

Sometimes their former owners can buy them back, but not if they have been adapted for smuggling.

One of the most extraordinary seizures by Northern Ireland Customs officials followed an attempt to smuggle 644 tortoises into the province on a ship in 1995.

Live animals and plants are routinely given to Belfast Zoo or a suitable botanical centre.

Items manufactured from endangered species, such as ivory or the skins of big cats or reptiles, are given to museums or universities for use in educating the public about the damage buying this kind of product causes.

A turtle and 70 kilos of coral are being handed over to the Ulster Museum in Belfast for use in an exhibition on the trade in endangered species in February.

Success rate

Mr McDonnell said Customs was making a significant impact on cross-border smuggling and fuel laundering.

He said: "We realise that there is no overnight answer to this, but even some of the local tobacco producers have said they've noticed in their sales that we are making an impact on the illegal trade."

See also:

31 Aug 00 | Northern Ireland
Cigarettes earn more for smugglers
11 Dec 01 | Europe
Three held in cigarettes raid
05 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Crime crackdown 'will continue'
05 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Operation targets fuel smugglers
09 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Dissident link to cigarettes seizure
05 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Illegal fuel funding paramilitary groups
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