Brazil Busts Cigarette Smuggling and Counterfeiting Ring that Enslaved Paraguayans

Published: 14 November 2023

Brazil Fake Cigarettes Police

The Brazilian Federal Police is taking action against individuals and legal entities involved in an organized crime network that manufactured and smuggled fake Paraguayan-brand cigarettes. (Photo: Polícia Federal de Brasil, License)

By Lieth Carrillo

Brazil’s Federal Police launched an operation Tuesday against an organized crime network involved in the trafficking and smuggling of fake Paraguayan brand cigarettes. The criminal ring, active in the center-western area of Minas Gerais state, forced Paraguayan nationals to make the cigarettes in hidden factories.

According to the police report, the criminal organization was led by a businessman from São Paulo. The group picked up workers in Paraguay, blindfolded them, and drove them east across the border into Brazil, where the clandestine factories were located in Divinópolis, in the state of Minas Gerais.

The Paraguayans were essentially enslaved, as they were held under surveillance inside the factories for several months. Their telephones were confiscated and they had no contact with the outside world.

The workers produced cigarettes packaged to look like Paraguayan brands popular in Brazil, such as the Tabesa brands “TE”, “Eight”, and “Palermo”. Once finished, the cigarettes were transported in trucks, hidden behind shoes manufactured in the municipality of Nova Serrana, also in Minas Gerais state.

More than 165 Brazilian Federal Police officers served 11 preventive arrest warrants, 13 temporary arrest warrants, and 35 search and arrest warrants in Minas Gerais, Amazonas, São Paulo, and Pará. They also froze more than $4 million dollars in assets.

The suspects face charges of smuggling, counterfeiting, human trafficking, slave labor, forgery and use of false documents, misuse of machinery used for cigarette manufacturing, crime against consumer relations, crime against trademark registrations, and money laundering.

"The prisoners will be liable for one or more of the following enumerated crimes with their respective maximum penalties: criminal organization, 8 years; cigarette smuggling, 5 years; embezzlement of machinery, 4 years; human trafficking, 8 years; slave labor, 8 years; forgery and use of false private document, 5 years; crimes against consumer relations, 5 years; and money laundering, 10 years," said the Federal Police.

Paraguay is a major contraband hub in South America. The country plays a key role in the illicit tobacco trade, especially in the triple border region between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Several million cigarettes are allegedly produced by companies without declaring their production. More than 97 percent of cigarettes produced in Paraguay end up in countries such as Brazil. The business is also entangled with money laundering, political corruption, and criminal gang activities.

In March of this year, the OCCRP reported on the rescue of 19 Paraguayans trapped in an illegal cigarette factory in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil rescued 918 people working as slaves in the first three months of this year. This is the highest number of people rescued in the first quarter of a year in the last 15 years.