On the frozen EU border with Belarus, Latvian border guards are fighting a growing stream of contraband cigarettes that are reported to benefit organized crime and a close ally of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Every day more than 200 trucks drive at the Paternieki border crossing into the member of the European Union Latvia, some of which are filled with smuggled cigarettes that are hidden among other goods

“In this border sector alone, we confiscated 21 million illegal cigarettes from Belarus last year, which is double the amount for 2019,” Taivo Hanzens, deputy customs chief at Paternieki, told AFP at the intersection

Hanzens said border guards often find cigarettes hidden between bricks and tiles, or foods like noodles, when demonstrating stacks of confiscated cigarettes

To solve the problem, the checkpoint is being expanded and more border guards, customs officers and veterinary officers are being recruited to double the inspection capacity

Despite scrutiny and inspection, cigarettes are so cheap in Belarus and so highly taxed in the European Union that contraband remains lucrative, even if millions of them are confiscated every month

According to the European anti-fraud authority OLAF, EU border guards seized a total of 370 million illegal cigarettes in 2020

Around a third of them came from Eastern Europe outside the EU such as Belarus, half from Asia

A report by a group of Belarusian and Russian investigative journalists published this month alleged the involvement of the Belarusian state and close associate of President Lukashenko

Conducted by three outlets – Warsaw-based TV broadcaster Belsat, Navinyvon the news website, and Russian investigative website Proekt – it named Lukashenko ally Alexei Olexin as beneficiary of the proceeds from cross-border cigarette smuggling

According to experts, most of the smuggled cigarettes from Belarus come from the state-owned Neman factory

Of the other two factories in the country, both of which are privately owned, one belongs to a close ally of Lukashenko

Domestic cigarette consumption in Belarus is estimated to make up around a third of total output from the three factories, although exact figures are difficult to find as these data are not made public

Latvian border guards said the smugglers bought up cigarettes in large quantities in Belarus, smuggled them across the border into Latvia, where they are stored and shipped to lucrative markets in Western Europe

In the nearby town of Indra, a recently arrived freight train waits on the tracks while customs agents search it

On trains, boxes of tobacco smuggled are sometimes hidden in bulk shipments of wood pulp or coal

They have started using metal claws with remotely controlled electromagnets that hold tobacco boxes under the rolling stock, say Latvian border authorities

When the train crosses the border and reaches Indra station for inspection, the claws fall off so smugglers waiting in the bushes can pick up the cigarettes

About 20 kilometers of the Latvian border with Belarus run along the Daugava River, and in the summer smugglers swim to Latvia with makeshift rafts and barrels of cigarette packets

“We caught many rafts made up of packets of cigarettes and equipped with a GPS device These are then covered with branches, trunks, reeds and other natural camouflages so that the whole thing looks like the usual floating garbage, “said Aigars Stelmaks, head of the border protection station in Piedruja

When the river is frozen, border guards patrol the banks with snowmobiles to prevent people from simply walking across the ice and carrying packets of cigarettes into Latvia

“Snow makes our work easier: if we see footprints in the snow, we can follow them,” said Stelmaks

The border official said some smugglers pretend to be fishermen as the river is open to the public

He added: “We suspect that a number of residents from smaller villages in the Latvian part are also involved in the smuggling”

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