The raids came after international cooperation with the European police services of Interpol, among others. 150 members of the federal Customs department were involved in the operation, which included a dozen raids at places across Belgium. A total of 40 suspects were apprehended.
Customs chief Kristian Vanderwaeren told the VRT that the operation was the largest of its kind ever held in Belgium. The aim was to bring a halt to the flourishing trade in illegal cigarettes. East-European criminal gangs set up small 'factories' to manufacture the cigarettes and to avoid excise duties. Cheap labourers are being abused as they have to work in poor conditions, but they can earn good money if all goes well.
The Customs department received the help from the police to raid illegal factories in Aartselaar, Tongeren and Eeklo among other places. The machinery can be bought on the internet, and the tobacco purchases are legal, but evading taxes is not. Belgium is becoming a hotspot for illegal production as the big export markets in France and the U.K. are close by. "You can earn a lot of cash with illegal cigarettes. In Belgium, a pack of costs 8 euros, which includes 6 euros in excise duties... but abroad, prices are even higher," explains Vanderwaeren.