Hong Kong Sees Largest Illicit Cigarette Haul in Two Decades

April 23, 2020
Project Crocodile image v2

Hong Kong authorities have intercepted their largest haul of illicit cigarettes in 20 years, despite the restrictions and focus demanded by the recent Covid-19 pandemic. 

Customs authorities captured 30 million illicit cigarettes worth HK$85 million and arrested four perpetrators after a tip that the cargo was bound for the city. The unprecedented raid was part of the long-running anti-smuggling campaign “Project Crocodile.”

Customs officials begun investigating the syndicate in mid-December, before identifying the cargo due to arrive in the territory. The four shipping containers were bound from Yokohama, Japan, and the raids were uncovered in two stages:

  • First, officers from the Revenue and General Investigation Bureau swooped in, seizing 22 million sticks of cigarettes. These were stashed in three containers located in yards across the city in Yuen Long, Sheung Shui, and Man Kam.
  • At the Sheung Shui site, officials seized a further 3,500 bottles of duty-not-paid liquor worth HK$2.5 million.
  • The following day, a final container that arrived from Shenzhen was inspected, revealing 9 million cigarettes.

Before arriving in Hong Kong, the containers had reportedly already traveled through the ports of South Korea, Vietnam, and Mainland China before arriving in Hong Kong. The criminal syndicate moved the goods along this circuitous route, routinely changing the contents listed on import documents to avoid detection by law enforcement in various jurisdictions This is a typical tactic used by transnational smugglers. Disrupting this "merry-go-round" mode was a paramount focus of the campaign.

Illicit trade in times of coronavirus

As authorities around the world divert their attentions to tackling the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns have been raised that it may become an opportunity for criminal activity. “It is possible smugglers believed our frontline officers were tied up in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak,” noted Lee Hoi-man, deputy head of the Revenue and General Investigation Bureau of Hong Kong customs.

This sentiment is one echoed by global law enforcement officials, who noted how opportunistic criminals will be looking to capitalize on the global epidemic. “Criminals are exploiting the fear and uncertainty created by COVID-19 to prey on innocent citizens who are only looking to protect their health and that of their loved ones,” warned Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

Around the world, international organizations are calling for greater collaboration to tackle coronavirus-related surges in illicit trade. Last week, StopIllegal reported on the unprecedented importance of effective cooperation between governments, policing agencies, and businesses to protect those most vulnerable in this time of crisis. Find out more here.

About Project Crocodile

Project Crocodile was launched on June 11, 2004. Drawn up by representatives of 16 customs administrations in the Asia Pacific Region, the campaign aimed to combat transnational cigarette smuggling activities. The cooperative would provide a platform for regional authorities to share intelligence on the illegal cigarette trade, supported by a monitoring system, a notification system, investigation, and prosecution. Its goal was to suppress criminal activity and successfully trace the movement of all suspicious cigarette shipments when imported, re-exported, or trans-shipped across customs territories. Changes in the identity of the cigarettes and suspicious diversions of the goods from their normal track and route to market would be investigated and action taken to ensure they stay on course.

The successful eradication of transnational smuggling syndicates requires close investigative and operational collaboration between customs administrations. Even more so to tackle those hiding in and moving between foreign jurisdictions.

The initiative’s latest triumph lay in participants’ intelligence sharing and cooperation through the global platform. The unified communication channel enabled the instant exchange of intelligence and immediate seizures; information on the containers was uploaded to a global database operated jointly by customs from different countries. The result was four arrests.

As the global crisis surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, authorities are now called upon to deal not only with societal, economic, and health issues the virus is causing, but also to suppress the enterprising criminals looking to exploit both high-market demands and a strained law enforcement system.


Written by STOP: ILLEGAL

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