Highway robbery on the M6

The Nineties smuggler has a Vauxhall Astra and 500 packs of ciggies in the boot.
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It's 5am on the north-bound carriageway of the M6 and I'm sitting in the back of a souped-up police Range Rover. Hitting 90mph, we are on the tail of a white Transit. "Why this one?" I ask the officer behind the wheel. "We look for overloaded vehicles," he replies.

"But we also rely on our sixth sense," adds his colleague.

Now we're in front of the suspect, the message "Follow Me" scrolls in red neon across the back of the Range Rover. "Have we caught a smuggler?" I ask, once we're back at base. "Just credit cards, mate," says the driver, revealing a huge safe.

As he drives off, I suggest that it may be a double bluff, that the booze and fags are in the safe. One of the officers raises an eyebrow, as if to say, "You've been watching too many TV police dramas, son."

I have driven up from London to join West Midlands Police and Customs & Excise officers in a joint operation. "The purpose is two-fold," explains Bill O'Leary, the press officer for Customs & Excise. "The police are looking for dangerous vehicles (usually overloaded), while we're looking for people who are transporting alcohol and tobacco with intent to sell." This traditional "seasonal slam" is part of Operation Mistletoe - launched by the Government in early October - and involves raids on shops, pubs and clubs, as well as vehicles. Tonight's exercise is a seven-hour random spot check of vans and heavily loaded cars travelling through the night on the north-bound carriageway of the M6.

These officers have heard all the stories. Such as the time they stopped a man in Northamptonshire with a vanload of beer. He claimed that it was for his engagement party. But during the interview he couldn't remember the date of the party, couldn't name the venue and, when pressed, couldn't name the woman he was to marry.

The users of cheap, late-night ferries start reaching the Midlands by 3.03am. A C-reg Vauxhall Astra has been brought in. Looking through the goods in the back of the car, O'Leary points to some hand-rolling tobacco. "Two-thirds of the hand-rolling tobacco sold in this country is smuggled," he says. This is not a particularly big market (it is worth pounds 200m a year), but it threatens the livelihood of legitimate traders.

"This 5-kg box," he continues, "contains 100 pouches of hand-rolling tobacco, bought at pounds 1.50 a pouch and sold at twice that price. These smugglers stood to make pounds 200 profit on those 5kg alone."

The car is driven by a short man with a Liverpool accent. He is carrying four passengers (two of whom are clearly drunk), as well as 10,000 cigarettes, four bootleggers' bags full of tobacco, 5kg of hand-rolling tobacco and some beer. The goods have a market value of pounds 10,000, representing pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 in evaded duty. After rigorous individual interviews, the five men are sent on their way - minus their shopping.

According to the Customs & Excise Department, smuggling has escalated since January 1993, when the single European market opened. In July, the Government gave Customs an extra pounds 35m to tackle the problem. Currently, it is recruiting more than 100 extra staff. "This kind of exercise would not have happened two years ago," says O'Leary. "It wasn't something that Customs & Excise did. But now, we have completely changed our working procedures. Our methods are much more aggressive."

It's now 4am, and a white van pulls up. It is driven by a 28-year-old Mancunian and is loaded with 150 crates of lager. Each crate contains 2,500 pints, which amounts to pounds 1,000 of evaded tax. This may seem like fairly small-time smuggling, but not to O'Leary. "The notion that a couple of mates will occasionally smuggle goods in to pay for their kids' Christmas is a fabrication. There are no cheeky chappies. Even the `small-timers', like this man, are organised. This is how they make their living."

So how does the "small-timer" get rid of thousands of cigarettes and cans of beer? "He will probably have a regular list of customers and an informal distribution network," O'Leary says. "He will do the pubs on a Sunday, selling to punters. He may even have a mate who runs an off- licence, which makes it a lot easier."

It's now just gone 4.30am. As I sit in the Customs & Excise Portakabin sipping a cup of tea, a blue Transit van enters the car park. It is packed to the rafters with crates of beer that are still in their pallets. "That's a sure sign that this van is part of a much larger, more organised set- up," whispers O'Leary. "These sorts of operation are master-minded by a `Mister Big'. They're like any import-export business; they have their couriers, their fleet of vehicles, and their drivers - who are getting cash in hand while often claiming benefits."

It is thought that several such criminal organisations exist in the UK. They may own 50 vans between them, travelling back and forth to the Continent all week. The "bosses" are looking at a turnover of pounds 80,000 - pounds 100,000 a week, says O'Leary. And there is increasing evidence that drug barons are getting involved. The financial rewards are nearly as high and the risks are about the same, but the penalties - if they are caught - are much lighter. If you were guilty of a pounds 250,000 excise fraud, for example, you would probably get three to four years in prison. But if you were tried for smuggling a similar amount of cocaine, you would be looking at 10 years.

There is an argument that taxes should be lowered in order to drive the smugglers out of business. According to John Carlisle, spokesman for the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association: "One out of every six corner shops is closing because of bootlegging. A packet of cigarettes is taxed at 78 per cent. As long as this remains the case, bootlegging will thrive." The Government's position is clear: It is better to lose pounds 1bn from smuggling, than pounds 9bn through tax cuts.

During the seven-hour operation, 40 vehicles were stopped. Four of them had their load seized. In all, 7,000 pints of beer, 20 cases of wine and champagne, 20,000 cigarettes and 400 pouches of hand-rolling tobacco were recovered during the night. The goods have a market value of pounds 20,000, or pounds 10,000 in evaded duty.

The idea that this is a victimless crime is ill-founded. Many hope that the new powers given to Customs - including escalating fines for persistent offenders, the power to seize vehicles, impose heavy fines, withdraw driving licences and recommend prison sentences - will have a major impact. What started out as a small-scale, old-fashioned criminal activity is now a highly organised racket. And the smugglers are cunning. Maybe I should have checked the safe in that van after all.