A high-speed way to make illicit riches

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The Independent Online
THE FERRY from Calais has just arrived at Dover hoverport. It is 5.30pm. Outside in the car park are huddles of tough-looking men, sporting tracksuits and beer guts.

Minutes after the hovercraft has docked 20 to 30 people pour out of the front doors clutching carrier bags filled with bottles of spirits and packs of 200 cigarettes. They are a strange mix of the young, old, middle-aged, men and women.

They immediately approach the waiting men, who openly pull out large bundles of cash and peel off a couple of notes in exchange for the bags.

This is the bottom rung of a multi-million-pound smuggling racket responsible for flooding Britain with cut-price alcohol and tobacco. But as the illegal trade and the profits grow so does the interest from organised crime. There are two basic types of smuggling. Much of the smaller scale boot- legging is known as "white van traffic", named after the Transits frequently used to bring the goods across the Channel.

Smugglers bringing in beer usually concentrate on well- known brands of high-strength lager. Tobacco runners favour quicker means, particularly the Channel tunnel and hovercraft.

Much of the tobacco comes from the town of Adinkerke in Belgium on the French border about 30 minutes from Calais. The low duty rates mean hand- rolling tobacco costs pounds 40 a kilogram compared with pounds 160 in a British shop. Cigarettes are usually bought from Luxembourg where they cost pounds 15 for 200 compared with pounds 36 in the UK. A smuggler can pack 35,000 cigarettes into their car without it looking overloaded.

The runners doing the donkey work earn as little as pounds 10 a trip or pounds 40 if they are drivers. But they can usually make three trips a day, sometimes sharing a room to "hot bunk" - taking turns to sleep. Up to 15 people have been found sharing a double room.

The next rung up are the local organisers who recruit the runners and supply their cross- Channel fares as well as taking the goods in secret to warehouses. They usually have a minder who looks after cash and punishes anyone who loses their loads or dips into it.

Above them are the bosses who look after distribution. Kent police say there are more than 1,000 active bootleggers from the North East, particularly Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Newcastle. A similar number are from the North West and West Midlands, with more in London area and 3,000 in Kent. The big-league criminals concentrate on bringing in vast loads - four to seven million cigarettes - in the back of lorries. These can be bought in bulk loads for as little as pounds 1 for 100 through bogus export companies in Eastern Europe.

The other scam to attract organised crime is the "diversion fraud", where fake companies are set up in the UK. Asian criminals have become particularly adept at this, say police and customs.

In a recent case four men were successfully prosecuted for using fake export documents to save an estimated pounds 7.2m in duty from alcohol.

The men, from London, were sentenced to terms ranging from two and a half years to four years at Kingston Crown Court last month.

One of the smugglers even had his own chain of off- licences where he sold the duty-free drink.