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'Operation 10.14' stubs out cigar-trafficking ring
By Yang Jianxiang (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-11-23 09:08

October 14 was the day for action. Around 2 pm, three 30-dwt (dead weight tonnage) barges set off from an inner water area of the Huangpu River in Shanghai. The boats were heading for the river mouth at Wusong, where they were to meet a bigger boat and load from it the cargo - untariffed, foreign-branded cigarettes.

The weather was mild, sunny. Navigating on the surface of open water, one felt a stronger wind than on land but the waves were not menacing. The tiny fleet proceeded in an unhurried manner. The journey took about six hours. Then the engines were turned off and the boats were left floating in the targeted water area. The big brother wouldn't arrive until 11:00 pm, when it'd be pitch dark. The crews didn't mind the darkness. It's part of the business.

The fast fishing boat showed up as expected. Around 11 o'clock, the unloading and loading began. Work was done with remarkable efficiency. In less than 15 minutes, one barge was fully loaded. Then, all of a sudden, the roars of engines came, vague at first but getting louder every second. Alarmed, the crews looked out. They hadn't much time to figure out the situation before their eyes were blinded by dazzling, crisscrossed beams of light shot from six patrol and speed boats that seemed to have burst onto the scene from nowhere. Busted. The task force from Shanghai Customs' anti-smuggling bureau had sprung their trap.

The smugglers were unprepared, but the anti-smuggling forces were. The action, carefully planned, was coded "Operation-10.14." It was the finale of an investigation that had gone on for nearly half a year.

The story goes back to early last May, when the anti-smuggling bureau in Shanghai was tipped off that foreign cigarettes were sold cheaply in local stores that were not authorized to do the business. Smuggling was probably involved, the bureau concluded. In China, as in many other countries, the production and sales of cigarettes were strictly controlled by the State.

No 1 case

Cracking down on cigarette smuggling was one of the major duties of anti-smuggling forces. "The Shanghai Customs had not dealt with any impressive cigarette smuggling cases for years. We decided to establish it as the No 1 case of this year," said Tan Jiahua, deputy director-general of Shanghai Customs' anti-smuggling bureau.

However, the clue was too general to start with. Initial probes into the issue proved difficult and time-consuming. In the following months, the bureau combed targeted districts for suspects. Their attention gradually focused on a group of people who apparently were not employed by any businesses, but owned big apartments, drove trendy cars and were frequent patrons to star-rated hotels and luxury shops. Further investigations convinced the bureau that it was an organized smugglers group.

These people formed a complete ring of trafficking and distributing foreign cigarettes. There was a clear division of work among the group members. They rented boats and sailors to work for them, but kept the latter in the dark about most of their activities. These people were secretive, sly and elusive. "They are big fish," Tan said.

The anti-smuggling force's plan for a crackdown was meticulously worked out. The objective was to root out the smuggling group in a decisive battle fought simultaneously at sea and on land. The preliminary plan was revised again and again down to the smallest details, Tan recalled. Twelve operational schemes were devised to respond to all conceivable possibilities. Simulated maneuvers were conducted to test the performance of commanding, communications and co-ordination of the operation.

When the date approached, all were ready for action. Waiting in the water area were some 100 anti-smuggling commandos in seven task groups, responsible for commanding, reconnoitering, tracking, and combat and chasing. They had at their disposal 10 boats. The land operation employed 50-plus police in eight groups and more than 30 motor vehicles. In addition, a couple of groups were ready on land to round up smugglers should they jump into the water to escape.

Careful preparations paid off. In the nearly three hours when the smugglers' barges waited to meet the mother boat, the anti-smuggling force's watch boat operated at a distance, while six anti-smuggling assault boats berthed as usual at the dock. "The smugglers were sly and cautious. They might keep a watch on us, too. If we started too early, they would be scared off," Tan said.

In fact, during that period of waiting, one of the barges circled the area several times to make sure that all were right. Once the barge and the anti-smuggling force's watch boat had a brief encounter. The smugglers, warily, cast strong lights on the disguised anti-smuggling boat. They apparently found nothing abnormal with the little boat.

Finally, the supplier's fishing boat left its hiding place at a nearby island and entered the target area. At about 11:05 pm, the anti-smuggling operation kicked off. The six anti-smuggling combat boats took only 12 minutes to arrive at the destination, which was about 2.4 nautical miles away from the dock. The smugglers were caught by surprise. Yet, quickly recovering from shock, some of them unfastened the ropes and raced two barges off the scene. They had little chance. The speedboats ran much faster. In two minutes, they were subdued by three anti-smuggling boats.

The chase

In the course of the chase, the smugglers managed to send via mobile phone a warning message to their cohorts on land. The recipient might have wished to get the message a little bit earlier, because by then the anti-smuggling force had stormed their hiding places and all six men were detained in a matter of 15 minutes.

"A prominent feature of this action is sea-land joint operation. In other, previous actions, either the smugglers at sea or those on land got loose. This time they were caught in one dragnet," Tan Jiahua said.

Operation-10.14 was completed in about half an hour. It was a success. As the smugglers were unarmed, not a single shot was fired. There was no casualties or damage to equipment on either side. The water operation detained 34 smugglers, seized four boats and confiscated about 1,700 boxes of cigarettes branded "555," "Double Happiness," "Parliament," and "Kent." The total value of cigarettes exceeded 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million).

On land the anti-smuggling force seized five motor vehicles (one BMW car, one Buick car and 3 Goldcup vans), and confiscated 800 cartons of cigarettes, as well as bank notes and deposit books in Chinese and US currencies with a combined value of more than 6 million yuan (US$722,890).

Initial interrogation found out that during August and October the smuggling group had illegally imported 7,000 boxes of cigarettes amounting to over 26 million yuan (US$3.1 million) in value, evading custom duties of 15 million yuan (US$1.8 million). Noticing the scale of this case, the Shanghai procuratorate has intervened earlier than expected. If convicted, according to Chinese law, the principal suspect could face the death penalty.

Tan Jiahua said the retail prices of foreign cigarettes sold in Shanghai had climbed recently, by about 50 cents a pack in the case of "555." The successful Operation-10.14 should have made smugglers in the region think twice before continuing. But "the impact would be temporary," Tan conceded. "Because Shanghai's robust economy offered too many opportunities, for smugglers as well." Duties collected by the Shanghai Customs account for about one-fifth of all customs duties collected around the country.

The case was reported at a press conference held for the anti-smuggling exhibition that is going on in Beijing between November 10-28.

On the last day, November 28, 18 confiscated cars will be auctioned off. One of them belonged to Lai Changxing, the principal of the country's biggest smuggling and corruption case. Lai's bulletproof Mercedes-Benz S600 had failed two previous auction attempts for lack of bidders.

Cigarettes big business

While the smuggling of oil products and cars has posed an increasingly big problem for the nation's anti-smuggling forces in recent years, the pressure from cigarettes is alleviating thanks to sustained crackdowns, said Zhao Fudi, deputy director-general of the Anti-Smuggling Bureau of China General Administration of Customs. Last year, China cracked 45 cases of cigarette smuggling, involving a total value of 34 million yuan (US$4.1 million), down 62 per cent from a year earlier.

However, illegal dealings in foreign cigarettes remain a highly lucrative business because prices double or even quadruple on the home market. And the smuggling of cigarettes takes a variety of forms: stowed away in traveler's luggage, customs clearance using fabricated bills or invoices, or in-shipment bypassing the customs. Smuggling by organized groups accounted for 60 per cent of all such cases, Zhao said. Smugglers were often encouraged by suppliers. In the Shanghai case, all the cigarettes came from Pusan, the Republic of Korea.

"It's a never-ending battle," said Xu Wenrong, a division chief of the Anti-Smuggling Bureau. A press release from the exhibition said the customs would maintain a high-handed stance on smuggling with anti-smuggling forces playing a major role, further improve anti-smuggling mechanisms, stress co-ordination of involved departments, and strengthen international co-operation to cut off supplies.

At the press conference, Xu Wenrong mentioned an agreement China reached with some Southeast Asian countries last July in Hong Kong. The anti-smuggling arms of involved countries now cooperate under a framework coded "Crocodile," which is dedicated to dealing with cigarette cases. The major content of that programme is the sharing of information, Xu said.

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