Warrants executed across Melbourne targeting illicit tobacco

Border Operations 19/10/2023
This is a joint media statement between Victoria Police, Australian Border Force and Australian Taxation Office.

Police have executed warrants at over 30 tobacco stores across Melbourne this week as part of the ongoing investigation by Taskforce Lunar into organised crime syndicates linked to illicit tobacco.

Members of the taskforce were joined at the warrants on 18 and 19 October by police from the VIPER Taskforce, Crime Command and North West Metro Region, along with representatives from Australian Border Force (ABF), Australian Tax Office (ATO), Australian Federal Police (AFP), Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and Sherriff's Office.

Police attended 34 stores in Bentleigh, Bacchus Marsh, Broadmeadows, Bundoora, Carlton, Hoppers Crossing, Glenroy, Kurunjang, North Melbourne, Flemington, Northcote, Moonee Ponds, St Albans, Melbourne CBD, Strathmore, Footscray, Melton West, Melton South, Collingwood, West Footscray, Reservoir, Fitzroy, Sunshine, Keilor Downs and Mernda.

As a result, the following was seized:

  • 36,639 e-cigarettes (vapes) with a street value of over $1M;
  • 524,851 cigarettes representing a $400,000 profit
  • 30kg of loose tobacco;
  • 2kg of cannabis;
  • A small quantity of cocaine; and
  • Two ASP batons.

Six people have been arrested, with a 40-year-old Northcote man charged and bailed in relation to drug offences.

The other five people were released pending further enquiries.

The warrants executed this week targeted retail outlets believed to be involved in the sale of illicit tobacco in Victoria.

They form part of the investigation by the newly formed Taskforce Lunar into organised crime syndicates believed to be heavily involved in the illicit tobacco trade and an ongoing dispute for profit.

This dispute has led to a series of at least 30 serious incidents over the past seven months.

This includes 27 suspicious fires predominantly linked to tobacco stores in both metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria.

On the majority of occasions, no one was present at the business when it was set on fire however almost all of the fires caused significant damage.

Luckily, no one was physically injured during the fires with the exception of several offenders who have set themselves alight.

A significant investigation into the series is underway with Taskforce Lunar drawing on a range of specialised resources from the Gang Crime Squad, Arson and Explosives Squad, Echo Taskforce, VIPER Taskforce, Criminal Proceeds Squad and Financial Crime Squad.

The taskforce is also working closely with regional police, as well as a range of external agencies such as the ABF, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), AFP and ATO.

At this time, Taskforce Lunar investigators believe the current situation is as a result of criminal syndicates in conflict due to competition for profit derived from the illicit tobacco market.

The current conflict includes both the physical placement of illicit tobacco into stores, as well as demands for stores to sell the syndicate's illicit product and to pay a 'tax' per week to operate.

Police believe the syndicates are comprised of personnel from Middle Eastern Organised Crime groups and Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, who are then engaging local networked youth, street gangs and other low-level criminal to carry out the offending.

So far, 13 people have been arrested in relation to incidents linked to this series.

Over the past two months, police and ABF have conducted over 100 store visits in attempt to obtain further information about the current dispute and disrupt any future attacks.

Investigators continue to appeal to anyone, especially store owners and staff, who has information about these incidents and who is responsible to come forward.

Anyone with information about these incidents or with further information about illicit tobacco is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential crime report at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au

Quotes attributable to Detective Superintendent Jason Kelly, Crime Command:

“As we've seen this year, these organised crime syndicates have very little regard for the harm they are inflicting on the community as part of their battle for illicit tobacco profits.

“We've seen a significant number of arson attacks, along with several firearms incidents, and it's only through sheer luck that no one has been killed.

“The warrants this week as part of the Taskforce Lunar investigation into the operation of these crime syndicates are a strong demonstration of state and Commonwealth agencies coming together to target the issue of illicit tobacco in every way possible.

“We have been clear that this is no longer about simply the investigation of the individual incidents – this is about doing absolutely everything we can to deter, disrupt and dismantle these syndicates.

“This includes the targeting of anyone across Victoria who is involved in the distribution and sale of illicit tobacco, at any level. Ultimately, this is contributing to enabling those organised crime syndicates to operate here in Victoria.

“While people's lives remain at risk due to this heightened criminal activity, we will continue to target these organise crime syndicates and do everything we can to hold them accountable."

Quotes attributable to ABF Commander Clinton Sims, Maritime and Investigations South:

“The ABF is targeting and seizing record levels of illicit tobacco at the border with tens of millions of illicit cigarettes detected each week in Victoria.

“The profits from illicit tobacco are usually funnelled back to organised criminal syndicates, involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.

“These criminal syndicates are sophisticated and run like a business, so they will do whatever it takes to ensure they have a supply and can continue to bring in a profit at the expense of legitimate business owners and the wider community.

“There is a common misconception that engaging in the illicit tobacco trade is a victimless crime, but it is far from it, and the ABF is determined to detect, disrupt and deter those involved in the illegal importation of tobacco into Victoria."

Quotes attributable to Assistant Commissioner Jade Hawkins, ATO:

“The ATO is focused on working closely with our partner agencies to target the source of illicit tobacco supply. By removing illicit tobacco from crop to shop, we are ensuring a level playing field for honest businesses."

“Make no mistake, these crimes are calculated and deliberate, undermining the strength of our economy and our community. They take funding from essential services such as health and education."​

“The trade of illicit tobacco products in Australia has widespread negative consequences across the community. We are committed to disrupting organised crime syndicates that produce and supply illicit tobacco for sale on the black market in Australia."