R43 million up in smoke

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The sky in the immediate vicinity of the Beitbridge port of entry in Limpopo is this week a haze of tobacco smoke as R43 million worth of illicit and smuggled cigarettes is burnt.

Destruction of the illicit tobacco product is the responsibility of the Customs Division of the SA Revenue Service (SARS). The revenue collection arm of the Department of Finance, via its Deputy Commissioner Johnstone Makhubu, said the destruction of 20 million cigarettes would “last a few days”.

The illicit and smuggled cigarettes were seized in multi-agency operations as well as dedicated and intelligence-driven operations as part of the Customs Division tobacco strategy, led by its National Rapid Response Team. Support came from the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) by way of its Operation Corona border protection tasking, the SA Police Service (SAPS) and its Hawks unit, as well as the Immigration division of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).

Makhubu said in one operation in February this year at the Beitbridge port of entry  1 211 master boxes of illicit cigarette branded Remington Gold, Chelsea and Royal Express, with an estimated value of R26 million, were seized. Additionally four people were arrested and criminal cases opened. Four trucks, a bakkie and a tractor with trailer with an estimated value of over R3 million used to move the illicit cigarettes, were confiscated.

SARS Customs and Excise Director Beyers Theron outlined a modus operandi increasingly being used by tobacco product smugglers.

“Since inception of its co-ordinated and focused investigations Customs and Excise has over the past three years conducted in the tobacco and cigarette industry, there has been a noticeable shift to increased cross-border smuggling using ‘runners’. They are not individuals smuggling cigarettes as an entrepreneurial opportunity but organised criminal syndicates exploiting the unemployed and the poor by employing individuals as runners to carry goods, often for miles, across borders.

“The runners carry at least two master cases of illicit cigarettes on their backs often repeating trips multiple times. Cigarettes are then loaded into trucks, small goods vehicles, cars and taxis, waiting at locations along the border for distribution to intended destinations locally,” he said.