A total of 11 individuals suspected of being part of an Armenian organised crime group involved in the large-scale import and distribution of counterfeit cigarettes have been arrested by French Customs (judicial investigation unit of the Ministry of Finance) with the support of Europol’s European Financial and Economic Crime Centre (EFECC).
On 15 March, over 40 judicial customs investigators, with the support of special intervention teams of the French National Police (RAID) and two Europol experts deployed on the ground, simultaneously searched 13 sites, including industrial premises as well as private residences, in and around the city of Lyon.
In addition to the arrests, over 2.5 tonnes of counterfeit cigarettes were seized, worth about EUR 1 250 000 in France, alongside EUR 100 000 in cash and EUR 150 000 in winning lottery tickets bought by the criminals to launder the profits. Four guns and many types of ammunition were seized.
The French investigators have since then been able to uncover that the counterfeit cigarettes were imported from different European countries, before being stored in warehouses located in industrial areas and then sold on the black market in several French cities.
Coordination by Europol
Europol’s EFECC supported the investigation by providing its secure communication platform and facilitating international cooperation between France and a number of other European countries, running cross-checks and providing analytical support and operational expertise. Two of its experts were deployed to Lyon to support the French Customs on the action day.
Excise fraud is currently an EU law enforcement priority. Strategic and operational plans have been developed under the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Crime Threats (EMPACT) Excise Fraud Project. Under this umbrella, a total of 24 countries led by Belgium are working together on countering the illicit production of cigarettes in the European Union.