It’s being called the single biggest seizure of contraband cigarettes in the history of the Manitoba Finance Taxation Special Investigations Unit.
Brandon, Man., police say a joint investigation between authorities in Ontario and Manitoba culminated last Wednesday in four arrests and the seizure of over 3.5 million cigarettes.
Officers conducting a traffic stop allegedly found 173 cases of the unmarked smokes inside an enclosed trailer believed to be returning from a First Nations community in Ontario.
The following day, police say they raided a storage locker and found another 183 cases.
“In total, 3,570,400 cigarettes were seized along with currency, vehicles and a transport trailer,” said Mike Pelechaty, inspector of operations with the Brandon Police Service.
“The four men arrested were all found to be residents of Brandon, Manitoba, ranging in ages from 46 to 60 years old.”
Ron Bell, supervisor and investigator with the Manitoba Finance and Taxation Special Investigation Unit, says in his experience, seizures of illegal cigarettes appear to be getting larger.
“In the past, you used to get a person coming back with 10 cases in the back of a pick-up truck, and then it got up to 60 cases,” Bell said.
“This year alone, we have 350 cases here, a couple of months ago … we seized 200 cases. Prior to that just in my own office we seized 120 cases. In the past we did not see that. Sixty cases was considered significant.”
Bell suspects it may be because the profit margin for illegal cigarettes is considerably greater than that of other drugs: a 300 per cent profit compared to 50 or 100 per cent for cannabis or cocaine.
“For the most part, people don’t think of it as a major crime,” Bell told reporters Wednesday.
“It’s not just cheating the tax man when you purchase and get involved with illegal tobacco, it’s a major criminal code offence.”
Indeed, in this case authorities say the province stood to lose in excess of $1.07 million in taxes.
For a first offence, the accused would be facing between $1,000 and $10,000 in fines, between six months and five years in prison, and a triple tax penalty over $3.2 million.
Bell says the cigarettes were coming from Six Nations near Hamilton.
The four men have since been released from custody and have a court date set for Nov. 12.