Colombian police have seized over US$1 million worth of contraband cigarettes and alcohol, breaking up a smuggling operation of the type commonly used to launder drug trade profits.
On board were 600,000 packs of cigarettes and 123 cases of whisky and vodka, all without customs seals. Police valued the haul at more than $1.3 million.
Officials believe the shipment was destined for resale in Colombia’s main cities, most likely Bogota and Medellin.
Although the authorities released no details on the criminal group behind the operation, they will soon be issuing arrest warrants based on evidence already collected, according to El Universal.
Smuggling contraband for resale in Colombia is one of the most common methods of money laundering, as it bypasses complex financial arrangements, of which expert launderers take a substantial cut.
Criminal organizations instead invest their drug dollars in goods such as alcohol, cigarettes and household appliances, often in duty free zones like Colon in Panama. These are bought with drug dollars and then the good are brought into Colombia and sold in pesos.
This trade is facilitated by “San Andresitos,” shopping areas that openly sell smuggled goods at discount prices, which continue to operate despite government attempts to crack down on the practice.
A 2011 study suggested that the criminal organizations the government calls BACRIM (from Spanish for criminal bands), such as the Urabeños and the Rastrojos, are behind much of this trade, especially in contraband alcohol.
According to Colombia’s customs and tax agency DIAN, the country loses $1.5 billion a year to untaxed, smuggled goods, including a loss of $300 million from illegal alcohol sales and another $300 million from the sale of contraband cigarettes.