Spain Busts Tobacco Gang Exploiting Ukrainians Fleeing War

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Police arrested 27 people in raids across Spain as part of their investigation which was carried out with the help of the European policing agency Europol.

Spanish police said Sunday they had broken up a gang that operated three illegal tobacco factories where Ukrainians, who fled to escape Russia’s invasion of their country, worked in poor conditions.

The operations were found in three of Spain’s regions and 27 people were arrested with the assistance of the European policing agency Europol.

The gang is believed to have smuggled “large quantities” of tobacco transformed into counterfeit cigarettes that were sold across the country and abroad, according to a statement by the Guardia Civil police force.

The factories, located in the northern wine-producing region of La Rioja, the southern region of Seville and the eastern region of Valencia, used “advanced technology” and could produce 540,000 cigarette packs daily, it added.

Police said the gang employed Ukrainians who had illegally moved to Spain or had legally entered the country seeking refuge from the war, adding that Ukrainians were living “crammed” into prefabricated shelters within the factories, and “without leaving the facilities so as not to be detected, working long hours”.

Meanwhile, the gang leaders “laundered large amounts of money” for their tobacco smuggling business and enjoyed “a life of luxury” in the upmarket tourist resort of Marbella on the Costa del Sol, the statement said.

The authorities seized 10 tonnes of tobacco leaves and 3.5 million cigarette packs worth a total of €37.5m ($41m; £33m), s well as luxury vehicles, jewellery, and large quantities of cash during their raid. More than 20 homes, industrial buildings, and shops were searched.

Police said the gang was also diversifying production by developing large marijuana plantations.

According to the United Nations, there are nearly eight million recorded Ukrainian refugees across Europe, who fled Russia’s February 2022 invasion. More than 160,000 have been registered in Spain.

Lawmakers at the European Parliament reported in November that labour exploitation of Ukrainians was on the rise, saying the urgency of their situation and language barriers sometimes forced refugees to take informal and underpaid work.