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Political and security instability put fire under North Africa illegal tobacco trade

Political and security instability put fire under North Africa illegal tobacco trade
A Montenegrin journalist told the Enact project that 1.5 billion cigarettes were smuggled from Greece to Libya in 2017 and Maltese customs seized 37 million counterfeit cigarettes linked to the Italian mafia and destined for Libya in 2018. (Photo: iStock)

Political and economic insecurity in the Balkans and Libya benefit transnational trafficking syndicates. 

The trafficking of tobacco is a multibillion-dollar business worldwide. One of the major global smuggling routes flows through the Balkans in Eastern Europe to North Africa, where a lack of security, high corruption, porous borders, and little cooperation among countries has created fertile ground for this trade.

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. Some of these cigarettes were then trafficked back into illicit markets in Western Europe.

Strategically located between Southern Europe, the Gulf states and the Sahel, Libya is an attractive trafficking hub for smugglers. The country’s chaotic political and security context has compromised the rule of law, enabling syndicates from South-Eastern Europe and the Italian mafia to distribute illicit cigarettes locally and regionally.

The volumes of contraband trafficked into North Africa are staggering. Between 2014 and 2018, over 20 million packs of Cleopatra cigarettes were produced annually in Albania and exported to Libya. Once there, they were smuggled across the border into Egypt. In 2015, Greek authorities intercepted a cargo ship 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 the Enact project that 1.5 billion cigarettes were smuggled from Greece to Libya in 2017. And in 2018, Maltese customs seized 37 million counterfeit cigarettes linked to the Italian mafia and destined for Libya.

Tunisia is also a favoured destination for smugglers, who move their product either directly from Southern Europe or Libya. Between 2018 and 2020, Tunisian customs intercepted 15 million packets of contraband cigarettes.

The power vacuum created by the fall of 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 decade, ordinary Tunisians have begun engaging in 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 locally manufactured or genuine foreign brands, and illegal imports. Since Tunisia’s government has a monopoly on the tobacco industry, the market is highly regulated. But corrupt individuals involved in the legal cigarette market deliberately create stock shortages, increasing the demand for smuggled and counterfeit smokes.


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Traffickers use two main methods to smuggle cigarettes to and within North Africa. From Southern Europe and the Balkans, goods are usually transported to Libya by ship from a seaport, such as Bar in Montenegro, using fictitious paperwork.

According to a Libyan smuggler who spoke to Enact, European traffickers also arrange trans-shipment between vessels at sea in the Mediterranean. With the help of militias, Libyan smugglers exchange petrol for illicit cigarettes and sometimes alcohol or other products.

The Balkans play a significant role in smuggling cigarettes to North Africa. Chronic political and economic instability in the Balkans and weak rule of law have enabled state officials’ involvement in organised crime, including cigarette, drug and weapons trafficking, extortion and kidnappings.

These illegal cigarette routes are made more complex by the China Tobacco International Europe Company (CTIEC)’s factory set up in 2007 in Romania. The industry serves as China’s main outpost for expanding sales globally. For CTIEC, Libya is a gateway to 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 there, the contraband would be shipped to Europe. According to the journalist, other Chinese factories in Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania were also major sources of cigarettes sold on North Africa’s black market.

Libya’s political instability provides the ideal conditions for organised crime. Militias remain a serious hurdle for peacebuilding and facilitate cigarette trafficking. Modern technology such as track-and-trace devices could help law enforcement agencies and legitimate businesses in Libya and Tunisia to reduce the problem. But current conditions, particularly in Libya, make this unlikely for now.

The obvious solution — greater and closer security cooperation between European countries (the Balkans in particular) and Libya and Tunisia — is sorely lacking. The exchange of information in a timely manner, and joint or coordinated naval patrols under a cooperation agreement, are vital. In the present situation though, cigarette smuggling is likely to remain a major headache for North Africa, the Balkans and South-Eastern Europe. DM

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, West Africa Regional Organised Crime Observatory, Enact project, Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

This article was first published by Enact.

Enact is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with Interpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. 

First published by ISS Today.

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