Cigarette smugglers' plans up in smoke as cops make several big busts

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Some of the cigarettes seized by Limpopo police.
Some of the cigarettes seized by Limpopo police.
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  • Police in Limpopo and Mpumalanga have made several arrests and confiscated a bulk of illicit cigarettes in the past few days.
  • In total, 287 cardboard boxes of illicit cigarettes were confiscated.
  • Tax Justice SA spokesperson Yusuf Abramjee said this indicated the vast scale of the problem that was robbing South Africans of billions of rand every year.

Police in Limpopo have made several arrests in the past few days for the possession of illicit cigarettes.

According to Limpopo police spokesperson Colonel Moatshe Ngoepe, the Limpopo Highway Patrol team (LHP) arrested eight people, aged between 23 and 38, for the possession of and dealing in illicit cigarettes and recovered an unlicensed firearm during an intensive patrol operation in the Dennilton policing area outside Groblersdal.

Police recovered 109 cardboard boxes of illicit cigarettes. One suspect allegedly tried to bribe the police with R500 cash, and a bribery charge was added to his offences.

In the Villa Nora policing area outside Lephalale, the LHP also arrested two people. Police recovered 100 cardboard boxes of illicit cigarettes.

READ | Limpopo cop, 15 others arrested for drugs and illicit cigarettes

In total, 20 people, aged between 23 and 46, were arrested for a variety of crimes, including burglary, business robbery, possession of suspected stolen vehicles, possession of drugs, possession of unlicensed firearms, possession of and dealing in illicit cigarettes and possession of explosives. Police recovered seven suspected stolen motor vehicles, 287 cardboard boxes of illicit cigarettes, cash, two firearms and ammunition, four cellphones and three knives, Ngoepe said.

The suspects will appear before various magistrate's courts soon. The police investigations in all the cases were continuing.

Tax Justice SA also reported that the authorities had seized a container of illicit cigarettes in Delmas, Mpumalanga.

Arrests indicate large scale of problem

Tax Justice SA spokesperson Yusuf Abramjee said while the seizure of huge consignments of smuggled cigarettes in recent days was good news, it indicated the vast scale of a problem that was robbing South Africans of billions of rand every year.

READ HERE | Cigarettes flying off the shelves as tobacco sales ban goes up in smoke

"Even before lockdown, one in every three cigarettes sold in South Africa was illicit, with no duty paid to the fiscus," Abramjee said.

"The five-month ban on legal sales handed criminal syndicates running this black market a complete monopoly on the trade.

"They were able to expand their networks and make an estimated R14 billion during the ban, completely tax-free.

"They are in no mood to give up their control of the trade and the recent busts reported by police are just the tip of the iceberg."

'Ripping off decent citizens'

Abramjee said criminals were flooding the market with illicit cigarettes without paying tax so they could "continue to rip off decent citizens as we face unprecedented hard times". 

"If you see cigarettes for sale for less than R25, they are suspicious and should be reported." 

Any packet of cigarettes priced R25 or less should be considered illicit. The excise (R17.40) and VAT (R3.26) leave a margin of no more than R4.34 to be shared by manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer. No one can afford to sell at that price, Abramjee said.

"The ban is over but the war is only just beginning against these criminals who enrich themselves by stealing money that is meant to fund schools, healthcare and housing.

ALSO READ | Lockdown cigarette dealers start slashing prices as govt lifts sales ban

"Police must enforce the trading laws. We need strong border control, particularly at the Zimbabwe frontier, where smuggling activity has skyrocketed. We need strong audits at tobacco factories and government must ratify the WHO [World Health Organisation] Illicit Trade protocol."

News24 is awaiting comment from Mpumalanga police spokesperson Brigadier Leonard Hlathi. This will be added once received.


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