The shipping container is filled with stacked boxes, revealing its highly sought-after contents on the black market. The illegal cigarettes, totalling 10 million, are cleverly disguised as a legitimate brand that claims to be of high quality, all in an effort to avoid taxes. Australian Border Force officers diligently inspect these smuggled cigarettes in a nondescript warehouse at the Port of Melbourne, as they work to prevent record amounts of untaxed tobacco from entering the country.
In the past financial year, over 1.7 billion illegal cigarettes were seized across Australia, with more than 350 million seized since July of this year. These shipments primarily arrive from ports in Asia and the Middle East. As criminal gangs compete for control of the illicit cigarette trade, the ones that manage to evade detection often end up in the hands of smokers or even arsonists.
The escalating turf war for control has led to firebombings targeting tobacco shops in suburban areas of Melbourne. Extortion and revenge attacks have become commonplace. Officials at the container examination facility report that 25 million cigarettes are discovered every week, arriving by ship into Melbourne. Many of these shipments are not concealed in any way, arriving in branded boxes within a 12-meter-long container. However, some discoveries are more discreet, with illegal tobacco and cigarettes hidden in items such as mattresses, carpets, and even buckets of pickles from Lebanon.
X-ray technology plays a crucial role in uncovering illegitimate shipments. Selected shipments are driven by truck to a warehouse away from the port, where a large MRI-like machine scans the contents. Analysts examine the detailed cross-section produced by the machine, searching for any anomalies. While they may not always know what they are looking for, illegal cigarettes are often easier to detect, especially when they arrive in large quantities.
Due to the overwhelming number of cigarettes being imported, individual discoveries are often not prosecuted unless they can be linked to major syndicates. The penalties for importing illegal tobacco are lower than those for drugs like cocaine, making it an attractive business for syndicates who use the profits to fund other criminal activities. Criminal groups are aware that not every container can be checked, as Melbourne’s port is the busiest in the country for commercial shipping, with thousands of containers arriving daily. Only 1 percent of these containers can be inspected due to limited staff and technical capacity.
However, the efforts are not in vain. Any illegal cigarettes found are discarded, and the importers are notified that their goods have been seized. The Lunar Taskforce, introduced by Victoria Police, aims to combat the growing illegal tobacco trade and the war for control among rival crime groups. This taskforce has made numerous arrests and seized hundreds of thousands of cigarettes and other contraband. It has been discovered that a “large portion” of the 800-plus tobacco stores in Victoria have been infiltrated by organized crime to sell black market cigarettes.