The illicit trafficking of tobacco is a multibillion-dollar business worldwide. One of the major global smuggling routes flows through the Balkans region of Eastern Europe to North Africa, where a lack of security apparatus and high corruption, porous borders, and little cooperation among countries has created fertile ground for this trade.
This is a convoluted trading loop. In 2017 over 10 billion cigarettes manufactured in the free-trade zone of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates were smuggled to North Africa either directly or via Greece and the Balkans. Of these, nearly four billion were shipped to Tunisia and two billion to Libya, via either Greece or the Balkans, some of which were then trafficked back into illicit markets in Western Europe.
Strategically located between Southern Europe, the Gulf states and the Sahel, Libya has attracted smugglers who use the country as a pan-regional trafficking hub. Libya’s chaotic political and security context has severely compromised the rule of law, enabling criminal syndicates from South-Eastern Europe and the Italian mafia to use their networks in Libya to distribute illicit cigarettes locally and regionally.
In December 2012, a cargo ship loaded with around 50 million counterfeit Cleopatra cigarettes was seized en route from Montenegro to Libya. Between 2014 and 2018, over 20 million packs of the same brand were produced annually in Albania and exported to Libya. Once there, the cigarettes were smuggled across the desert border into Egypt.
In March 2015, Greek authorities intercepted a cargo ship sailing unauthorised in its territorial waters, loaded with 146 tonnes of Cleopatra cigarettes bound for Libya. In 2016 alone, 11.5 million Cleopatra cigarette shipments were exported from Albania to Libya, through Malta. A Montenegrin journalist told ENACT that 1.5 billion cigarettes were smuggled from Greece to Libya in 2017. And in November 2018, Maltese customs seized 37 million counterfeit cigarettes, which were linked to the Italian mafia, destined for Libya.
Tunisia is also a destination for illicit cigarette smuggling, directly from both Southern Europe and Libya. Between 2018 and 2020, Tunisian customs intercepted 15 million packets of contraband cigarettes and seized 4.3 million in the first eight months of 2020.
The power vacuum created by the fall of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during the 2011 revolution has undermined Tunisia’s rule of law. Criminals no longer fear the police or the ill-equipped security forces, and the number of smugglers and traffickers has increased as a result.
Over the past 10 years, ordinary citizens have begun engaging in and benefiting from corruption, which has become endemic. Smugglers often view cooperation with state officials and security services as the safest way to guarantee their protection. Information and payments are exchanged for the ability to pursue their illegal activities.
Another factor driving the demand for trafficked cigarettes in Tunisia is the price difference between cigarettes manufactured there or genuine foreign brands, and those imported illegally. Since Tunisia’s government has a monopoly on the tobacco industry, the market is highly regulated. However, corrupt stakeholders involved in the licit cigarette market benefit from their position by deliberately creating stock shortages, increasing the demand for smuggled and counterfeit smokes.
Traffickers use two main methods to smuggle cigarettes to and within North Africa. From Southern Europe and the Balkans, goods are usually transported by ship from a seaport, such as Bar in Montenegro, to Libya using fictitious paperwork.
A Libyan smuggler told ENACT that another method used by European traffickers is to arrange transshipment between vessels at sea in the Mediterranean Sea. With the help of militias, Libyan smugglers reach a predetermined point with their boats and exchange petrol for illicit cigarettes and sometimes alcohol or other products.
The Balkans play a significant role in smuggling cigarettes to North Africa. In a context of chronic political and economic instability and weak adherence to the rule of law, some Balkan state officials are involved in organised crime, including cigarette, drug and weapons trafficking, extortion and kidnappings.
To add to the transnational complexity of these illegal cigarette routes, the China Tobacco International Europe Company (CTIEC), or China National Tobacco Corporation, set up a factory in Romania to serve as China’s main outpost for expanding sales globally in 2007.
For CTIEC, Libya is a gateway to both the African and European markets. In 2021, two smugglers and a senior CTIEC executive were caught planning to traffic a container of 17 tonnes of illicit smokes from Italy through Libya.
A Montenegrin journalist told ENACT that CTIEC would ostensibly export its cigarettes to Turkey, but the cargo would be issued with false declaration papers in Montenegro and diverted to Libya, from where they would be shipped to Europe.
The journalist also said that other Chinese factories in Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania were also major sources of cigarettes sold on the black market in North Africa.
Libya’s political instability provides the ideal conditions for organised crime. Libyan militias remain a serious hurdle for peacebuilding and facilitate cigarette trafficking.
Modern technology such as track-and-trace devices could support law enforcement agencies and legitimate businesses in both Libya and Tunisia in their efforts to reduce the problem. The current conditions though, particularly in Libya, make this unlikely in the immediate.
The obvious solution: greater and closer security cooperation between European countries (and the Balkans in particular) and Libya and Tunisia to curb the transnational trafficking of illicit cigarettes–is sorely lacking. The exchange of information in a timely manner, as well as joint or coordinated naval patrols under a cooperation agreement, would be key tactics of such cooperation
However, in the present situation, cigarette smuggling is likely to remain a major headache for Libya, for North Africa in general, and for the Balkans and South-Eastern Europe.
Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, West Africa Regional Organised Crime Observatory, ENACT project, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin