TAX Cobra, a special anti-tax-evasion unit of the police, snagged some unusual prey on July 18: a 700-metre-long secret tunnel that had been dug beneath the Slovak-Ukrainian border. The police believe it was being used several times a week to smuggle cigarettes into Slovakia, thereby depriving the state of as much as €50 million in tax revenue. The tunnel, described by professionals as technically sophisticated, leads from the Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod to a spot between the Slovak villages of Vyšné Nemecké and Nižné Nemecké and is thought to have been in operation for at least a year, the SITA newswire reported.
“It is like a tale from a movie about the United States-Mexico border,” Finance Minister Peter Kažimír told the press as he announced the discovery of the tunnel, which measures one metre in diameter and descends to as much as six metres below ground level.
Along with the tunnel, police found and confiscated 13,100 cartons of cigarettes and arrested two people described as Tomáš V., who allegedly rented the property where the Slovak end of tunnel comes out and organised the cigarette smuggling operation, and Štefan H., a truck driver from Šaľa. Tomáš V. was apprehended as he loaded cigarettes, while the truck driver was arrested nearby, according to the Finance Ministry website.
The smugglers built the tunnel using mining technology: the cargo was loaded onto to a small train consisting of 16 wagons and a battery-powered engine, on which a driver rode. Upon reaching the other end of the tunnel, the engine driver would ring a bell as a signal for his partners to open a door, which was locked on the outside, according to Sme daily.
“Technically it [the tunnel] was so perfect that both sides had to come [to the tunnel] to start the cooperation,” Jozef Luterán, head of the state Financial Administration Criminal Office, which tackles tax and customs fraud, told the press.
The tunnel starts in the cellar of a residential property in Uzhgorod and ends in a timber storage site in Slovakia. Construction probably began on the Ukrainian side, where several houses were recently constructed in the same neighbourhood and where trucks transporting soil would not therefore be viewed as suspicious.
Though the police knew about the existence of the tunnel, they had difficulty finding it and used an excavator to dig through to the hidden entrance, which was protected by a sliding wall, the Sme daily reported, citing a well-placed source.
The smuggled cigarettes were exported to western European countries, according to Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, pointing out that the writing on the packets was in English. The brands seized included Classic Blue, Classic Red and LM, plus Russian-made Jin Ling. All sell at a higher price in western Europe than in Ukraine or Slovakia and therefore offer potentially high profits for smugglers, according to Sme.
While the police have remained tight-lipped about how the tunnel was detected, Kaliňák suggested that it came as the result of regular monitoring of the border as well as intelligence from various branches of the police, TV Markíza reported.
Asked why the police had failed to discover the tunnel sooner, Denisa Baloghová, spokesperson for the Police Force Presidium, told The Slovak Spectator that the construction date of the tunnel had not yet been clearly determined. Law-enforcement bodies, together with technical experts, will cooperate in investigating the findings and relevant facts, she added.
“The police are actively cooperating with Ukraine,” Baloghová said, adding that cooperation with other countries is also possible.
Smugglers also favour border-crossing rivers
Police achieved similar success on the Slovak-Ukrainian border in February 2011, when they discovered a vessel containing 13,000 cartons of cigarettes on the River Tisa. Smugglers tend to use the Tisa, Uzh and Latorica rivers, which all cross the Slovak-Ukrainian border, because even if consignments are intercepted the culprits themselves can remain undetected. The cartons are typically contained in pipes disguised to look like tree trunks or covered with the type of floating garbage that is relatively common on these rivers.
Since 2007, when Slovakia was admitted to the Schengen border-free area, the rivers have been under heightened surveillance, including by thermal cameras and night-vision devices.
“The Ukrainian border is better secured since [Slovakia’s] entry to Schnegen, yet the pressure on illegal transport of goods, particularly cigarettes, is still enormous, while smugglers continuously seek any opportunities and holes in the system, whether on the technical side or where human resources are concerned,” Miroslava Slemenská, head of the communication department of the Financial Administration, told The Slovak Spectator.
The two recent interceptions were partly the result of cooperation between Slovak customs officers and their Ukraine counterparts, something which Slovak officials say has been improving recently. Nevertheless, relations were relatively recently affected by a spat between Slovakia and Ukraine over the operation of a scanner at the Maťovce railway border crossing, where a broad-gauge cargo line enters Slovakia. In August 2009 Ukraine unilaterally halted cross-border railway cargo movements because of what it called the harmful effects of the scanner, which is operated by the Slovak customs authority and uses X-ray technology, on the health of employees of the Ukrainian state railway.
Slovakia described the claims as unfounded and said that the device was not harmful to employees’ health. Scanning was temporarily halted pending the results of expert measurements performed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Once these confirmed the safety of the x-ray scanning device it was returned to service in December 2009. The bad blood over that flare-up now seems to have dissipated, if the cooperation in the tunnel case is anything to go by.
“The Ukrainian side was informed right after the tunnel discovery on our side and the cooperation was really above-standard,” Slemenská told The Slovak Spectator, adding that “relations [between Ukrainian and Slovak police] are surely better.”
Slovakia entered the Schengen area on December 21, 2007 after rebuilding border checkpoints at Ubľa and Vyšné Nemecké, both on the border with Ukraine, because they are on Slovakia’s only Schengen land border. Reconstruction of both border checkpoints cost more then €7 million in total, according to euroinfo.gov.sk, a Slovak government information website.
27. Jul 2012 at 0:00 | Roman Cuprik