Customs investigators involved in raids on beer syndicates say high profits and low penalties are attracting growing numbers of gangland members and drug dealers. In one case, officers moving in to arrest bootleggers found that their targets were armed; in another, a woman thought to have been involved in a beer syndicate was beaten to death before she could be charged.
Officials believe gangs using up to 12 constantly-changing couriers are making two or three trips a day across the English Channel. Profits on each run - the difference between French and British prices and duty - can amount to about pounds 500 per van. Therefore, an operation in full swing can net up to pounds 18,000 a day.
'When the single European market opened up on 1 January 1993, the trade in cheap beer was carried out by young Jack the Lads flogging the stuff at car boot sales,' said one investigator. 'But now organised criminals are involved with outlets at night-clubs, off-licences, working men's clubs and illicit drinking dens. It's becoming a very serious problem.'
The trade in cheap beer, mainly from France, took off with the establishment of the single market. Britons may now travel across the Channel and bring back as much as they can carry, as long as it is for their own use. Customs officials may question drivers with more than an 'indicative limit' of 110 litres, but so long as those questioned insist their load is for personal consumption - perhaps for a party or a wedding - then they must be allowed to continue.
They can make unlimited journeys and commit an offence only if they re-sell the beer. Those without a satisfactory excuse face only having their beer and vehicle impounded; and most criminals use hire vehicles anyway.
The maximum penalty for re- selling the beer, and defrauding the Exchequer, is seven years in jail. But of 160 people arrested for re-selling since January 1993, 94 people were charged and only one was imprisoned. And of 1,600 cases in which vehicles involved in bootlegging were stopped at ports, 778 were settled with the payment of duty and 716 shipments and vehicles were seized.
'We are finding that organised crime is moving in more and more, with gangs of people involved in a full-time way,' said Frank Ferguson, a Leeds-based Customs investigator. 'It is very profitable and if they get caught, the sentences are less than those imposed for drug smuggling.'
Customs officers in Leeds have recently arrested two large gangs allegedly involved in running bootleg beer from France. During one of the raids they had to be accompanied by armed police officers because several targets had alleged links with organised crime. A woman involved in a second case was murdered before she could be charged. Details of both cases are sub judice.
Don Manson, assistant collector for the Excise and Customs division covering Hull, said his officers were finding bootleg beer in off-licences, car boot sales, and social and working men's clubs. Seizures were so great that Customs warehouses in the area were full and extra secure warehousing was being rented.
Customs and Excise has set up a confidential free hotline - 0800 901901 - for people wanting to pass on information.
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