Gang who smuggled 117 million cigarettes behind bars after HMRC cracks EncroChat messages

counterfeit tobacco, EncroChat, HMRC, Illegal Tobacco, HM Revenue and Customs invetigation, illicit cigarettes across UK
Cigarettes seized at Immingham Port (Photo: HMRC)

Two men who smuggled 117 million cigarettes into the UK have been jailed after their encrypted messages were accessed by investigators from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Hazhar Mohammad-Pani, 31, and Hubert Smolarek, 41, from Rochdale, and Maciej Dzikowski, 49, from London, were caught using data from Operation Venetic, the clampdown on organised criminals which was launched last year and saw international law enforcement agencies working together to infiltrate encrypted messaging platform EncroChat.

HMRC said the gang used the platform to discuss the smuggling and selling of illicit cigarettes across the UK and moving cash out of the country. The investigators used the messages to help prove the gang smuggled 117 million cigarettes between 29 March and 12 June 2020, worth £36 million in lost duty and taxes.

Gang members were also convicted of money laundering. They sent approximately £8 million in cash out of the country during the first lockdown in 2020, including £1.6 million which was seized by officers at Dover in May 2020.

Photo: HMRC

EncroChat conversations revealed the huge scale of the crime over a ten-week period and the slang used to discuss their trade. Cash was referred to in EncroChat messages as paper, £10,000 was known as a sandwich, and the lorries transporting the cash were called sandwich taxis. The UK was nicknamed The Wild Country or The Island.

Cigarette sales were so vast, it took five-hour sessions for gang members to count cash and they wore face masks to protect themselves from the dust thrown up.

Money was sent to Poland and to a mysterious figure known as ‘Big Boss’. The messages also included incriminating images of gang members hiding cash in supermarket bags and unloading cigarettes using forklift trucks.

“In the fight against serious organised crime, the Encrochat operation was the largest and most significant law enforcement activity ever mounted in the UK. The recovery of messages helped HMRC to dismantle a significant gang involved in smuggling and supplying illegal cigarettes,” Carmine Di Franco, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said.

Hazhar Mohammad-Pani
Hubert Smolarek

Mohammad-Pani worked with Smolarek, who sourced cigarettes from Polish sellers, and the men sold them to customers around the UK. Dzikowski also supplied Mohammad-Pani with Polish-sourced cigarettes.

Lorries made three deliveries a week to storage units in Liverpool, Rochdale and Haslingden and to a farm in Loughborough. Cash was handed over in car parks and laybys.

On two occasions millions of cigarettes being smuggled into the UK were intercepted at Immingham and Dublin ports. The gang also used the Encrochat platform to discuss the steps they took to avoid being caught on the roads as the UK entered the first lockdown to combat Coronavirus and the Stay at Home message was launched.

All three pleaded guilty to the charges of conspiring to fraudulently evade tobacco duty and transfer criminal property at Manchester Crown Court, which yesterday (30 November) sentenced Mohmammad-Pani to seven and a half years and Smolarek to seven years and four months in jail.

Maciej Dzikowski will be sentenced at a later date.