Tobacco smuggling: Marseille’s illicit secret

Like most big ports, Marseille has seen its fair share of crime and smuggling. The latest trend, seen almost everywhere in the bustling Mediterranean city, is the sale of cigarettes smuggled from North Africa. In the endless cat-and-mouse game with the police, smugglers seem to be winning, for now.

The Project SUN report, an annual study commissioned by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), has found increasing flows of smuggled genuine cigarettes from Maghreb countries toward France.

OLAF has also warned that there are worrying indications that genuine products produced for the North African market in Algeria are finding their way across the Mediterranean “in greater bulk than could be justified”.

According to the report, the flows from Algeria to France have increased 300% since 2012, when volumes of legally produced cigarettes in Algeria that are smuggled to France soared from 1.08 billion in 2012 to 3.19 billion in 2016.

The city of Marseille is particularly impacted as it is one of the main ports of entry into France from the Maghreb region.

EURACTIV visited Marseille and interviewed a number of people, who, for safety reasons, decided to speak on condition of anonymity.

Cigarette smuggling is taking place everywhere: on the flea market under video surveillance cameras, in the port, and even in the vicinity of the city’s police stations.

Locals say it’s a complex issue because there are several forms of routing: even normal passengers who come from Algeria carry cartons of cigarettes in their luggage to give to smugglers who wait for the arrival of every ferry.

“It’s a problem that everyone is aware of but no one speaks about […] it sounds like Marseille’s omerta,” a source said.

Marseille: The end of the chain

David Brugère, who heads the Centre of Marseille police, told EURACTIV that cigarette smuggling in his city is one of the main priorities to address but still, France cannot tackle it alone.

“Marseille is a real hub for tourism but also for illegal goods, such as drugs and now cigarettes,” Brugère said.

He said that those active in the smuggling of cigarettes are also involved in other crimes such as burglaries and other illegal activities, which could be harmful to the city.

“In Marseille, we are at the end of the chain, that is to say, we will work on the sale, the products of the sale, but just like for drugs, the end of the chain means that the start of the chain, which is not in France, is abroad,” he said.

“Most of the time, it is in Algeria and flows are difficult to contain since they do not come from our country. So there is a lot of work to be done on an international level in order to eradicate this massive influx of cigarettes from abroad,” he said.

EURACTIV asked Europol whether it is cooperating with the French government on the issue.

“Europol has a dedicated team (Analysis Project Smoke) combating organised crime groups engaged in excise fraud (tobacco, alcohol and oils). This team supports EU member states, upon their request, in their fight against this criminality affecting two or more EU member states,” Europol said.

But it added it is “not allowed to provide comment on the national perspective of a criminal phenomenon in lieu of the national authorities,”

Sellers: numerous and everywhere

A police officer from the Northern district of Marseille said the illegal genuine cigarettes, mainly Marlboro, arrive from Algeria by plane in suitcases but most prominently by ships in cargo containers.

On a weekly basis, there is at least one operation that mobilises approximately 10 policemen from 7 am to 3 pm. “For our city, this is just a lot […] there is a will to address this illegal situation, which is not representative of Marseille but the situation is overwhelming.”

The police officer explained that these cigarettes are much cheaper and the quality is good, which inevitably lures consumers.

The officer said that during the summer period, there are a lot of ship departures and arrivals from Tunisia or Algeria, but unlike flights, the police are not aware of the schedules.

“If you know someone on the ship, they can get you out as a diplomat and therefore nobody searches your luggage. Certainly, there are people who benefit from the system and get rich at the expense of these poor guys [sellers].”

Ostrich policy

The rising trend is also confirmed by RUSI, which found last year that the travel volumes and the limit of 200 cigarettes per trip “do not support the volumes identified in France, resulting in 87% of the Algerian flow reported as contraband”. This is equivalent to almost 300 containers during the year.

“The solution is that the customs do their job, that’s all. But the thing is that cigarettes come from where? From the port, from the airport!” another police officer said.

The French customs authority has not provided any comment by the time of this article’s publication.

A retailer who works in the region and has seen his sales severely hit by tobacco smuggling complained that the state has adopted an “ostrich policy” with regard to this problem.

He noted that the increased excise tax on tobacco products could result in a 20% drop in official sales, but also an increase on the black market.

“I have sent letters to the customs to denounce this, with argumentation, and a balance sheet showing a decline in sales, but nobody moves, no one gives a damn,” the retailer emphasised.

“They come to Europe by boat, hidden in the fuel tanks. Some customers… have told us that they smell too much like gasoline. They are packed in cellophane and hidden in the tanks,” the retailer said.

“When they arrive here in Marseille, the sailors take them out of the port. At one point I could see the traffic. There was a path just in front, but that was walled; we saw the sailors around two o’clock at night climbing the wall and carrying bags of cigarettes.”

What PMI says 

Philip Morris International (PMI) told EURACTIV that the existence of “low-volume, high-frequency” smuggling from Algeria to France is a symptom of the “significant flows of people travelling between the two countries and the difference in tax and price in cigarettes”.

In an emailed response, the company said it has actively tackled this problem by introducing an anti-diversion action plan, including a carton tracking programme, and raising awareness with the Algerian authorities.

“We work with the authorities wherever possible to tackle smuggling and would welcome the opportunity to work with the French authorities to eradicate this trade,” PMI said, adding it was looking forward to the implementation of the WHO’s anti-illicit trade Protocol, which should make tracking and tracing and due diligence procedures “common practice around the world”.

A well-organised crime

A special investigator in the police explained that tobacco smuggling has created a lot of tension in the area that has only added to the ongoing struggle over who controls what area.

“It is pretty well organised and they have specific territories of resale. We have reduced the number because we track them but it’s endless. That is to say, it’s complicated to get to the source.”

Asked whether there is cooperation with Philip Morris, the manufacturer of Marlboro, the police officer said, “I know they had also helped customs, they had paid for a customs detection portal, so they tried to help us in this fight. It slowed down a bit for legal reasons.”

Referring to the collaboration with the customs office, the police official said that it could improve, but it’s difficult because “they have less mobilisation capacity than ours”.

“To fix it at the source you have to go outside our borders to prevent them from loading and returning. If customs did their job we would not have so many issues in Marseille […] if there were regular checks outside, it would not happen here. We are at the end of the chain.”

The police officer explained that the problem is mainly in the port because when a ship arrives, the sailors have practically all night to unload their stock and go down on the docks.

“If passengers have cigarettes, they are controlled, end of the story. Whereas if it was the other way around, if we were in control, when the sailors came in, to check what they had on them, it would be easier. It’s a job they should have done outside, in Algeria”.


Subscribe to our newsletters