Paternieki, Latvia - On the EU's frozen frontier with Belarus, Latvian border guards are fighting a growing flow of contraband cigarettes reportedly benefitting organised crime and a close ally of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
More than 200 trucks a day cross into European Union member Latvia at the Paternieki border point, some of them stuffed with smuggled cigarettes hidden among other cargo.
"We confiscated 21 million illegal cigarettes from Belarus last year in this border sector alone, which is double the amount for 2019," Taivo Hanzens, deputy head of customs at Paternieki, told AFP at the crossing.
"And the contraband is still on the rise," he added.
Hanzens said that border guards often find cigarettes hidden among bricks and roof tiles, or foodstuffs like pasta, as he showed off piles of seized cigarettes.
To deal with the problem, the checkpoint is expanding and hiring more border guards, customs officers and veterinary officials to double its inspection capacity.
- State involvement? -
Despite the close screening and inspections, cigarettes are priced so low in Belarus and taxed so high in the European Union that contraband remains lucrative, even with millions of them being confiscated every month.
EU border guards seized a total of 370 million illegal cigarettes in 2020, according to the European anti-fraud agency OLAF.
Around a third of them originated from non-EU Eastern Europe such as Belarus, while half came 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 associates of President Lukashenko.
Carried out by three outlets -- Warsaw-based TV station Belsat, the Naviny.by news website and Russian investigative website Proekt -- it named Lukashenko ally Alexei Olexin as a 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 country's two other factories, both privately owned, one belongs to a close Lukashenko ally.
Domestic consumption of cigarettes in Belarus is estimated to account for around a third of the total produced by the three factories, although precise numbers are hard to find as these data are not made public.
Latvian border guards said the contrabandists buy up cigarettes in Belarus in bulk, smuggle them across the border into Latvia, where they are warehoused and shipped on to lucrative markets in western Europe.
In the nearby town of Indra, a recently arrived cargo train waits on the tracks as customs agents search it.
On trains, boxes of the tobacco contraband are sometimes hidden in bulk shipments of wood pulp or coal.
Smugglers are getting technically inventive, too.
They have started using metal claws with remote-controlled electromagnets that hold boxes of tobacco under the rolling stock, Latvian border authorities say.
When the train crosses the border and before it reaches Indra station for inspection, the claws fall off, allowing smugglers waiting in the bushes to retrieve the cigarettes.
Sometimes the officers are quicker and confiscate them.
- Floating rafts of cigarettes -
About 20 kilometres (12 miles) of Latvia's border with Belarus runs along the Daugava river and in the summer smugglers float cigarette boxes into Latvia with makeshift rafts and barrels.
"We have caught many rafts consisting of cigarette boxes, completed with a GPS device, which are then covered with tree branches, trunks, reeds and other natural camouflage, making the whole thing look like the usual floating trash," said Aigars Stelmaks, chief of the border guard station in Piedruja.
When the river is frozen, border guards patrol along the bank in snowmobiles to stop people simply walking over the ice and carrying cigarette boxes into Latvia.
"Snow makes our work easier: if we see footprints in the snow, we can track them," Stelmaks said.
The border official said some smugglers pretend to be fishermen as the river is accessible by the public.
He added: "We suspect that a number of local residents from smaller villages on the Latvian share are participants in the smuggling as well."
By Imants Liepinsh