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Belize, the Gatekeeper for Contraband Tobacco Flowing into Mexico

BELIZE / 9 NOV 2021 BY CHRIS DALBY EN

While contraband cigarettes are a mainstay across Latin America, Belize has confirmed its status as a major port of entry for illegal tobacco into Mexico.

Every Monday, a day on which Mexican customs agents reportedly are “less strict” for imports, numerous packs of illegal cigarettes cross the Belize-Mexico border at the town of Chetumal, according to a report by Milenio.

While each person crossing the border can bring up to three packs of ten cigarettes with them, smugglers have struck a deal with customs agents once a week.

“It’s an agreement that all the smugglers have, that once a week, we can cross with everything we want to bring across. We have to bring everything over at once,” one smuggler told Milenio. Both Mexican and Belizean vans were seen crossing the border. Smugglers even said that they could bring cigarettes across for any individuals who paid them to do so.

SEE ALSO: Contraband Chinese Cigarettes Take Latin America by Storm

According to the investigation, cigarettes brands from China, India, Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and the United States were all brought across.

The appeal is clear: a pack that sells from 4-6 Mexican pesos ($0.2-0.3) in Belize’s free trade zone along the border increases in value to 15-20 Mexican pesos ($0.75-1) in Chetumal.

However, many of them don’t stay there. Most are then sent to Tepito, one of the largest neighborhoods in Mexico City and a well-known smuggler’s paradise. One criminal group in the capital, the Tobacco Cartel (Cártel del Tabaco), got its start by specializing in the theft, smuggling and sale of contraband cigarettes.

InSight Crime Analysis

Mexico has many ports of entry for illegal cigarettes.

On the Atlantic side, the port of Veracruz has been inundated with illicit cigarettes. From January to October 2020, Mexican customs seized over 40 million cigarettes, with 31.1 million of them having arrived through Veracruz, according to customs statistics cited by the local press.  

The country’s biggest port, Manzanillo, on the Pacific coast is a common destination for Chinese contraband tobacco. Shipments to both Manzanillo and Veracruz often come from Panama, which has become a regional platform for the distribution of illegal tobacco.

SEE ALSO: Tobacco Cartel May Mark Shift in Mexico Underworld

However, Belize’s importance has been steadily increasing. Back in 2013, InSight Crime reported on how the country’s free trade zone had become a hub for cigarettes coming from Paraguay and sold to Mexico and Guatemala.

At the time, its lack of specific security measures to fight contraband was listed as a key reason for its role as a contraband hub. With smugglers having formalized deals with customs officials about when to bring over their merchandise safely, the situation is unlikely to improve.

While the sale of cigarettes in Mexico plummeted by up to 45 percent during the pandemic, a new report suggested that the percentage of illegal cigarettes has climbed from 2 percent to 19 percent in the last decade.

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