Spain gang bust: Ukrainians exploited in illegal tobacco operation

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A member of the Civil Guard arrests people allegedly involved in illegal tobacco productionSpain’s Civil Guard/Europol

Police in Spain have broken up a gang they say ran three illegal tobacco factories where Ukrainian refugees worked in poor conditions.

The operations were found in three regions of Spain and 27 people have been arrested.

The gang is alleged to have smuggled large quantities of tobacco turned into counterfeit cigarettes.

The factories could make more than half a million cigarette packs daily, which were sold across Spain and abroad.

Police said the Ukrainians, who had fled Russia’s invasion of their country, were living “crammed” into prefabricated shelters within the factories.

They were working long hours and were not leaving, to avoid detection, as some had entered the country illegally.

Meanwhile, the bosses of the organisation enjoyed a “life of luxury”, allegedly laundering money for their tobacco smuggling operation.

The authorities seized tobacco products worth €37.5m ($41m; £33m), luxury vehicles, jewellery and large quantities of cash during their raid. More than 20 homes, industrial buildings and shops were searched.

The first clandestine factory was found in a chicken shed near Seville in the south at the end of 2021 – leading the authorities to uncover two other operations, in the eastern Valencia region and La Rioja in the north.

Police said the gang was also diversifying production by developing large marijuana plantations.

The investigation got assistance from the European policing agency Europol.

According to the United Nations, there are nearly eight million recorded Ukrainian refugees across Europe, who fled Russia’s February 2022 invasion. More than 160,000 have been registered in Spain.

In November, lawmakers at the European Parliament reported that labour exploitation of Ukrainians was on the rise, saying the urgency of their situation and language barriers sometimes forced refugees to take informal and underpaid work.

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