Abu Mohammed, was one of the most prominent dealers in Hama in contraband cigarettes. His truck, in which he used to transport his goods from Aleppo to Hama and its countryside, even to Tartus, was well-known by all personnel manning the security checkpoints as well as customs control, specialized in combating smuggling.
For some unknown reason, the control personnel confiscated his cars and his goods on one occasion, in addition to ten thousand dollars in cash that was in his possession. Abu Mohammed was sent to prison in mid-2013, emerging therefrom after several months, and was obliged to pay a resiliation for his smuggled goods that cost him millions of Syrian Pounds.
Abu Mohammed then returned to his old habit of contraband trade. He did not know, however, that his 'validity' in the eyes of the customs control people had simply expired. They confiscated his goods once again, and he was imprisoned in late 2013, losing everything he owned.
One of his friends tells Rozana: "There must be a desire on part of the Customs Control—matched by that of the security people—to 'burn' Abu Mohammed, to raise someone else in his place."
Bashar, a cigarette dealer in Tartus, expresses helplessness after the main supply route from Iraq has been shut, with ISIS' control of the eastern region. This left Aleppo as the unique route, through which cigarettes can pass only with the Customs Control consent.
How Does the Customs Control Trade in Cigarettes?
Customs Control personnel are specialized in combating smuggling in all its forms—whether waterpipe tobacco, or cosmetics.
But cigarettes are of particular importance, due to their higher monetary value. The value of one carton of "Kent" cigarettes, for example, could reach one hundred thousand Syrian Pounds. If the car load is twenty cartons, that translates into two million Syrian Pounds—an amount opening the appetite of Customs Control. The goods' Owner will thus become subject to blackmail: either confiscation or imprisonment. One Tartous trader has even agreed to pay one million pounds to be let go.
The names of all cigarette dealers—whether apprentices or seasoned dealers—are well known to Customs Control personnel. They monitor each and every one of them, and force them to pay monthly royalties proportional to the amount of goods they sell.
Customs Control personnel would purchase cigarettes from the smugglers for cheap then re-sell it to other dealers. Sometimes they confiscate goods from a novice dealer—as happened with one such unlucky dealer in the Tartous countryside. He did not sign the customs report, fearing imprisonment or a fine, and then was sold his same confiscated goods by the Customs Control people.
Says the trader in question: "I learned from other colleagues, that it is imperative for them to hit me the first time; so that I understand how they deal."
The "Secret Bureau"
The "Secret Bureau" is the strike force of the General Organization of Tobacco, whose personnel enjoy broad authority that even supersedes that of Customs officers. The "Secret" in the name comes from the unannounced nature of the raids they conduct of stores and traders.
According to one of the new cigarettes traders, the missions of Bureau personnel can only be described as "shakedowns." They may resort to physical intimidation, beating a trader to pressure him, or to force him to give up his share of the quantity the General Organization of Tobacco owes him. Each dealer's amount of cigarettes is usually determined according to his purchasing power.
Abu Mahmoud al-Halabi, for example, was subjected to the Bureau's excesses, being beaten to unconsciousness by Bureau personnel. One of his friends tells Rozana: "This state [the regime] is completely harmonious... As the saying goes 'the fox guards the chicken's coop;' Secret Bureau elements who are supposed to stem the tide of cigarette smuggling, are the ones allowing—even controlling—the smuggling!"