Cigarette Smugglers Find Safe Harbour in Montenegro, Again
In the early hours of March 16, 2015, a fishing boat named the Zahra moored metres off a rocky, remote stretch of Messara Bay, on the southern coast of the Greek island of Crete.
The Zahra sailed under the flag of the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Its crew was Ukrainian and its cargo - 34 million cigarettes - had likely been produced in Bosnia and Greece for companies based in Kosovo before being sold to a Liberian offshore firm based in the Montenegrin port of Bar.
The cargo's final destination was, on paper, Libya, but waiting on the shore of Crete was a convoy of trucks ready to receive the cigarettes via conveyor belt, before fanning out across the European Union.
It was smuggling operation with links across the globe.
Using shipping notes, leaked emails and law enforcement reports, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, has uncovered that up to 840 million so-called 'cheap white' cigarettes have been exported from Montenegro by a clutch of mostly offshore firms using similar routes and often the same 'ghost' fishing boats or small cargo ships, sailing the Mediterranean without transmitting their positions. Most shipments listed Libya as their final destination, but Egypt, North Cyprus and Lebanon also featured.
Cheap white cigarettes are imitations of well-known brands but which do not breach trademarks; they are produced legally in one country, but then smuggled and sold elsewhere. They represent the fastest growing sector of the illicit tobacco trade in the EU.
BIRN, working with the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, ARIJ, has identified at least 17, possibly as many as 20, questionable shipments from Bar since 2014. The EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF, which has been investigating the...