Cigarette smuggling & terrorism

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - May 17, 2018 - 12:00am

From an underground makeshift factory in Sumy, Ukraine to faraway ports such as in Long Beach, California and anywhere in between, authorities have been waging a cat-and-mouse chase against cigarette smugglers.

Through the years, authorities led by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) have established links between cigarette smuggling — as in other forms of counterfeit and bootlegging activities — and terrorism.

Because of this, the Interpol and other security organizations have been stepping up efforts against the global illicit trade in tobacco. They’ve also been slapping stiffer penalties on cigarette smugglers to combat global terrorism.

The Philippines should do the same. When I wrote about cigarette smuggling last week, a reader said I failed to see the practical side of cigarette smuggling — that it provides Filipino smokers affordable cigarettes at a time when prices of the product are already so high.

 “The price of everything is already high. At the very least, cigarettes should remain affordable,” the reader said.

But to look at cigarette smuggling as a remedy or alternative to higher-priced cigarettes in the market is dangerous, considering that it is helping fund global terrorism.

No less than the country’s biggest cigarette company recognized the problem.

Last week, during a press briefing after the annual stockholders’ meeting of LT Group Inc. (LTG), its president Michael Tan noted that cigarette smuggling has been linked to terrorism.

 “It’s really a concern because it’s also a national security issue. It could fund terrorism,” Michael said.

LTG is the listed conglomerate of taipan Lucio Tan. Its Fortune Tobacco Inc. and Philip Morris Philippines Manufacturing Inc. are partners in PMFTC Inc., the biggest cigarette company in the Philippines.

Michael said the illicit trade of cigarettes remains a problem, but he lauds government efforts to go after smugglers.

 “We’re still hoping enforcement will continue and government will be able to put a lid on illicit trade,” he said during the briefing.

Global threat

It’s a serious problem, especially given that such activities have been found to be financing terrorist activities, far beyond Philippine shores. Even the Department of Finance has recognized this.

Illegal money, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said, could end up funding terrorist activities. He is right.

Leafing through the pages of the latest report of the US Department of State on illicit trade, I realized just how bad the situation is.

 “Internationally, it fuels transnational crime, corruption, and terrorism. As it converges with other criminal activities, it undermines the rule of law and the licit market economy and creates greater insecurity and instability in many of today’s security “hot spots” around the world. Illicit tobacco provides a significant revenue stream to illicit actors without the high risks and punishments associated with trafficking in narcotics or humans,” the report said.

Even the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force noted that “large-scale organized smuggling likely accounts for the vast majority of cigarettes smuggled globally.”

It also said that often the tobacco is trafficked through the same routes as drugs, weapons, and other illicit forms of trade.

There have been specific links between cigarette smuggling and terrorist organizations such as the Irish Republican Army, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Hizballah, the US State Department report said in the report.

Mr. Marlboro

In fact, it noted that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former Al-Qa’ida operative, is known as “Mr. Marlboro” because of his involvement in cigarette smuggling as a means to raise funds for his terrorist organization.

Smoking Dragon and Royal Charm

In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted multi-year raids in the east coast via Operation Smoking Dragon and in the West Coast with operation Royal Charm.

The raids found out that smugglers shipped approximately $40 million worth of counterfeit cigarettes and other illegal commodities from China and North Korea through different trade routes from China.

Smugglers used false bills of lading for toys, rattan furniture, baskets, and other goods.

In September 2013, Interpol also seized nearly one million individual plain-packaging packs of cigarettes from Asia Cosco, a cargo ship docked in Ireland, according to the report.

Interpol found out that the illicit cigarettes were manufactured in Vietnam, supposedly for retail distribution in Ireland.

Such incidents show that the global illicit cigarette trade is part of a bigger problem that could affect all of us, smokers or not. Smuggled cigarettes, which find their way into the country, may indeed be part of a netherworld of terrorists that pose serious threats to our lives.

Here at home, local authorities must continue with the raids and coordinate with international security organizations such as Interpol for the indictment of individuals involved.

There’s a lesson to be learned here – when consumers purchase illicit tobacco they undermine their own security. Smokers should keep this in mind.

The best solution really is to quit smoking, but then again that’s not always easy. As the late sir Joy de los Reyes, Malaya editor and my very dear friend, said in jest some years before he died of lung cancer, “quitting smoking is easy, I do it everyday.”

Iris Gonzales’ e-mail address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com

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