Spanish police have beaten a British gang behind Europe’s very first underground illegal cigarette factory.
Amazing images released today by detectives showed that they entered the bunker 13ft below the surface of the earth and saved six Eastern Europeans who worked and slept in the hideout where 3,500 counterfeit cigarettes were produced per hour.
One of the presumed leaders was a British fugitive who did not return to his British prison cell after a temporary release.
The factory workers, whose bunker was hidden under a sea container in stables near the Costa del Sol, would have been “killed” by their bosses before they were discovered.
Detectives revealed that man’s oxygen supply was cut off when the diesel generator on which they were dependent for clean air stopped working after the police raid – and the first of the 20 prisoners above ground was silent about the soundproof underground shelter.
The police discovered the bunker by using a forklift to move the sea container and climb a ladder after the workers made a desperate attempt to escape when their air supply ran out, but no help was called.
The factory is located in Monda, Malaga, just a short drive from Marbella.
The Ukrainian factory workers had worked in a bunker under a sea container in Monda, Malaga, a short drive from Marbella
The number of British arrested has not yet been made public, although police say the criminal gang behind the illegal cigarette factory “was mainly formed by British citizens.”
A Guardia Civil spokesperson, who identified the British fugitive only with his initials of DD, said: “One of the alleged leaders, a British subject whose initials are DD and are 30 years old, was fleeing the British police who could not have returned to prison after a temporary release. “
The images released by researchers who broke the British operation showed the high-tech factory where cartel brand cigarettes were produced, as well as the underground bunk beds where the men slept and the kitchen where they made their meals.
The operation, led by a specialized unit of the Civil Guard, called the Central Operational Unit, which is responsible for investigating and prosecuting the most serious forms of crime and organized crime, was called Operation Hannibal.
The Spanish police said they were supported by British officers. Cannabis resin and marijuana were also seized during the raids.
They produced cigarettes for sale on the black market. The operation was discovered by the Civil Guard with support from the British police
A Civil Guard spokesperson confirmed: “A criminal organization consisting of British, Lithuanian and Ukrainian citizens who made and commercialized cigarettes on the black market and was involved in drug trafficking was destroyed.
‘Twenty people have been arrested and thirteen searches have been carried out in homes and warehouses.
“The operation led to the seizure of 153,000 packs of cigarettes ready to be sold, 17,600 kilos of tobacco, 20 kilos of cannabis resin and 144 kilos of marijuana.
‘The discovered illegal cigarette factory is the first underground cigarette factory in Europe. It was able to produce 3,500 cigarettes per hour. “
The power added: ‘The factory was hidden in stables under a sea container that was moved with a forklift.
‘Only on the evening of the day the police operation started, the hiding place was discovered, which was about 13 feet below ground.
“Six Ukrainian workers who lived together in unsanitary conditions and had virtually no contact with the outside world were locked up and abandoned.
“The other members of the organization had not told the Civil Guard about these workers when the police operation started.
“A diesel generator that enabled the workers to stay underground, but had to be refueled daily, stopped working on the day of the police operation and made the conditions in the underground factory dangerous for people inside.
“They realized there was a problem and the air was scarce and started screaming and banging on the shipping container over their hiding place.
“But the police above ground did not hear their cries for help because the underground installations were made soundproof so that the machines could not be heard.”
Packaging for the illustrated cigarette packages ready for use in the bunker. The cigarettes were reportedly destined for UK markets
The Guardia Civil spokesperson revealed: “The underground factory was only discovered thanks to the insistence of officers who saved the men inside.
“Although the members of the criminal organization who were arrested earlier in the day knew that there were six employees inside and were aware of the difficulties in locating, they never informed the police of their existence Of it.
“This situation was exacerbated by the fact that the workers could have died because the generator had stopped working due to a lack of fuel.
“The lack of oxygen would have led to a significant loss of human life if the police had not discovered the plant in time.”
Twelve of the 20 arrested have already appeared before a judge in a hearing pending ongoing legal proceedings.
The court that orders the prison is located in Coin, a half-hour drive inland from the Costa del Sol resort of Marbella.
Carlos Gallego, head of the UCO financial crime unit who led the operation, said the police had been investigating the gang since June thanks to the cooperation of AP Smoke from Europol.
He said that the cigarettes produced on the black market in the UK would be sold and entailed risks to consumer health because they were not subject to proper controls.
The hiding place was discovered in Monda, Malaga, near the tourist hotspot of Marbella
A Guardia Civil spokesperson said that the 12 suspects were sent back to prison after appearing before an investigating judge, all of whom were British.
On the spot, Mr Gallego said: ‘The chosen location was the perfect place for the organization to set up their clandestine factory. It’s a complex place and you can’t imagine how hard it was to find it and to determine what kind of criminal activity was going on here.
“The stables were the illegal cover for the illegal activity and hindered the discovery of the factory.
“What is important here is that this is the first underground illegal cigarette factory that has been discovered in Europe.
“Experts had pointed out the existence of these types of factories, but as you can imagine they are not easy to find.”
He revealed that police raids started at 5 am on February 11, but said the undiscovered factory was not discovered until 11 am that night and the six trapped workers were released.
The workers knew how to operate the machines because they had previously worked in legal tobacco factories in their home country. Police say they had been underground for a week and would stay a month in total before being replaced by others.
A confidentiality order regarding the case after the arrests has now been lifted, allowing the police to be made public with details of the operation.
He thanked the British authorities for their help and added: “The cigarettes that we seized and were ready for sale were from a brand that is well known in the UK.
“They would be sold there.”
Europol said the presumed leaders, confirmed by the Spanish police, are British who kept workers in “extremely dangerous and toxic conditions.”
A spokesperson said: “The operation has uncovered a whole series of production facilities managed by the criminal group.
“Law enforcement agencies invaded the primary production facility where the raw tobacco was cut and prepared for the second production phase.
“The Spanish law enforcement officers have discovered the production facility that is hidden in a bunker four meters below the ground.
‘In the facility, which is believed to have been in operation since 2019, employees have made and packaged the counterfeit cigarettes; a complete production line under one roof.
‘Beds and living spaces for the workers were also found underground. This is the first underground factory discovered in the EU.
“Employees there were forced to work in extremely dangerous and toxic conditions. They were locked up four meters below the ground and were not allowed to leave the facility alone and there was no emergency protection.
“Similar cases have shown that criminals blindfold employees when they take them to and from the factory.
“Although paid for their work in the facility, employees are usually not allowed to leave or make contact with others during work.
‘Criminals often even seal the ground to enforce this. It is estimated that these illegal activities generate around 625,000 euros (£ 525,000) per week in criminal profits. “