Guardia Civil officers have rescued six workers, who were at risk of suffocation, from a hidden cigarette factory near Monda.
The men, all Ukrainian nationals, were found enclosed in an underground bunker, which was equipped to produce 3,500 cigarettes an hour. Earlier in the day the factory’s masterminds had already been arrested elsewhere.
Run by an organisation formed predominantly by British nationals, the bunker is the first illegal tobacco production line to be located underground in Europe.
Detectives had established that the cigarettes were being produced on an estate near the small town of Monda, on the edge of the Sierra de las Nieves.
All that was visible when members of the UCO (the Guardia Civil’s elite division) arrived at the site, however, were stables. Nothing could be seen or heard, although four metres below their feet, six men were banging on the walls of the bunker shouting for help. The underground space they lived and worked in was running out of oxygen.
The ventilation system, as the officers later established, was run on a generator that needed filling with diesel every day.
On the day of the raid, however, with the gang’s ringleaders under arrest, nobody had refuelled.
The walls of the bunker were soundproofed to prevent the noise of the machinery from being heard above ground.
Officers said later that they had been surprised by the indifference of the leaders of the organisation who, after being arrested, knew that the generator was likely to have run out of fuel. Despite being aware that their six workers could die of suffocation in the bunker, they still gave no indication of its location.
According to the detectives, if they had not found the entrance when they did, the lack of oxygen in the underground enclosure would have killed the workers, as the air supply had been cut off.
The entrance to the bunker was eventually located after officers had been searching the land for 16 hours. An old shipping container, apparently used as a tool shed, had to be moved using heavy machinery.
The workers had been living in “insalubrious conditions”, the UCO officers explained after the rescue. With bunk beds and a kitchen underground, their contact with the outside world had been “nonexistent”.
A month underground
According to the Guardia Civil, once the workers had gone down the narrow step ladder into the bunker, they spent a month underground, where they worked 24 hour shifts. The organisation brought over workers as tourists from Eastern European countries and they returned after their month in the factory.
The six Ukrainians found during the operation were “totally closed off and abandoned to their fate”, following the arrest that same morning of their bosses, said officers.
The operation, codenamed ‘Hannibal’, has resulted in 20 arrests after 13 searches of private properties. Some 153,000 packets of cigarettes ready for sale were confiscated in the operation, along with 17,600 kilos of granulated tobacco, 20 kilos of hashish and 144 of marijuana.
Among the Britons arrested is one of the organisation’s ringleaders, identified by the Guardia Civil as 30-year-old D. D., who was on the run from the British authorities after failing to return to prison after temporary release.
Another of the suspects arrested is Lithuanian national A. R., who is wanted by the authorities in his home country for crimes related to smuggling.
The investigation is being coordinated by a Coín court. Twelve of the 20 suspects have been remanded in custody.