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Tuesday, 25 December, 2001, 11:23 GMT
Irish border smugglers hit hard
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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