Counterfeit cigarettes may appear harmless, but the illicit tobacco trade often spurs other criminal activities – with the latest case being the use of slave labor by a ring that manufactured illegal cigarettes in Brazil.
Authorities rescued 17 Paraguayan nationals and 1 Brazilian that had been kept at an illegal underground cigarette factory in the town of Triunfo, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, according to a police news release. The victims, who had not seen the light of day for 8 months, were held in a bunker and sent food every two days.
SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profile
The factory – made to appear as a cereal plant – produced about 10 million packs of cigarettes per month. The cigarettes – sold on the black market in Uruguay and Brazil – could bring in as much as $50 million reais ($8.9 million) per month.
The operation that dismantled the illegal cigarette ring took place in late October across Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná and São Paulo, with authorities executing 40 arrest warrants and 56 search warrants, Brazilian media reported.
In addition to charges related to contraband, suspects in the case are being charged with human trafficking, money laundering and environmental crimes.
InSight Crime Analysis
The use of slave labor in the production of illegal cigarettes underscores how the counterfeit trade creates opportunities for criminals to exploit vulnerable populations. Counterfeit economies have been linked to child and forced labor, as well as human trafficking.
Big business in Brazil and in the Southern Cone countries, the illegal cigarette trade also foments crime and lines the pockets of criminal groups.
According to the Anti-Contraband Association of Latin America (Asociación Latinoamericana Anticontrabando – ALAC), more than half the cigarettes for sale in Brazil are illegal, with about six out of every ten cigarettes being illegal. Much of the illegal cigarette trade on the Brazilian market is contraband from Paraguay. In 2016, 86 percent of Paraguayan cigarette contraband was reportedly found in Brazil.
In Brazil, illegal cigarettes purportedly move about 10.9 billion reais ($1.9 billion) per year, according to figures published by the news outlet Estadão.
The groups involved in the illegal cigarette trade are often involved in other criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, arms trafficking and money laundering, and the proceeds from contraband cigarette sales may be used to fund other criminal activities.
Brazil’s federal police have stated that the country's criminal gangs, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV), have used proceeds from illegal cigarette sales to buy weapons and ammunition.