Smugglers' plans go up in smoke

Rory Carroll

Wednesday August 9, 2000

Italian magistrates have unravelled a cigarette smuggling empire that united Balkan gangsters, Italian housewives and Swiss judges and bankers in a multi-million pound rip-off.

Six Swiss citizens, including two judges, are among 87 people accused of laundering profits and running speedboats across the Adriatic to land an estimated 250 tonnes of cigarettes in Italy each month.

Police wire-taps revealed that the gang was planning to buy a stake in the Italian state tobacco-producing monopoly, MS, which is due to be privatised.

The gang allegedly bought MS cigarettes for export through offshore companies, then smuggled them back into Italy where they were sold tax free.

Franco Verda, 59, the president of a court in Lugano, an Italian-speaking Swiss town, is in a Zurich jail accused of tipping off the gang about the imminent freezing of their accounts. He denies the charge. A second judge under investigation was not named.

A Swiss banker, civil servant and head of a money-changing outlet have also been implicated.

The Yugoslav republic of Montenegro was used as a base from which high-powered speedboats ferried the contraband to Italy.

Dozens of housewives and unemployed people in Bari were discovered to have lent their names as owners of the boats to protect the gang.

Original article