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Multi-million dollar modern-day cigarette bootlegging gang arrested in New York

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modern-day cigarette bootlegging gang

Eight members of a US modern-day bootlegging gang have been charged with grand larceny, conspiracy and other crimes after they were arrested in connection with a plot to smuggle cheap cigarettes into New York to sell with counterfeit tax stamps.

The gang members, who are said to have made millions out of the conspiracy, were arrested on Monday after police raids resulted in the seizure of 6,267 cartons of untaxed cigarettes, as well as $2.3 million.

Speaking after the defendants were charged, Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown said: “The defendants in this case are modern-day bootleggers who allegedly peddled untaxed cigarettes to enrich themselves.

“This smuggling ring raked in millions of dollars at the expense of New Yorkers.

“Purchasing cheaper cigarettes from out of state and applying counterfeit tax stamps on them cheats both the state and city out of much-needed tax revenue.

“The defendants now face prison time as a result of their alleged greed.”

“I want to acknowledge the exceptional work of the multiagency Strike Force that investigated this illegal operation. My office will continue to work diligently with our law enforcement partners to root out those who set up illegal operations in Queens County.”

Prosecutors allege that Nasir Jafri purchased over 37,000 cigarette cartons from retailers in Virginia and Maryland before driving them to New York, where tobacco products are subject to additional taxes.

Defendants Ahmad and Hassan Abualrub are then said to have bought the cigarettes from Nicholas Galafano before transporting them to Brooklyn, where they sold them on to customers.

A search of Beatrice Villafane’s home, which prosecutors allege was used by the gang as a “stash house”, led to investigators recovering more than 3,500 cartons of untaxed cigarettes, nearly 100,000 counterfeit New York State tax stamps, paraphernalia used to remove and affix stamps, counting machines and more than $200,000 cash.

Last year, a report from Washington DC-based think tank the Tax Foundation revealed that New York was the US capital of illicit tobacco.

The study found that an estimated 56.8% of cigarettes smoked in New York in 2015 were smuggled into the state.

That figure represented a 35.8% increase on the amount of smuggled tobacco smoked in 2016 in New York, which levies the highest rate of state cigarette tax in the US.

“Growing cigarette tax differentials have made cigarette smuggling both a national problem and in some cases, a lucrative criminal enterprise,” the report authors wrote.

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Chinese ‘Ivory Queen’ jailed in Tanzania for heading up elephant tusk smuggling operation

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Chinese ‘Ivory Queen’

A Chinese woman dubbed the “Ivory Queen” has been jailed for 15 years in Tanzania after being convicted of smuggling hundreds of elephant tusks.

Yang Fenglan was found guilty of running one of the largest ivory smuggling operations ever discovered in Africa, and is said to have been responsible for the trafficking of tusks from as many as 400 elephants worth an estimated $2.5 million.

A court heard how the 69-year-old businesswoman had managed to pose as an upstanding member of the Chinese expatriate community in Tanzania for decades, while all the while overseeing a major smuggling operation that involved huge quantities of illicit ivory being trafficked between Africa and China.

Yang was yesterday found guilty of being behind the smuggling of 860 tusks between 2000 and 2014.

She is said to have used her connections with wealthy and powerful individuals she met while working as Secretary General of Tanzania’s China-Africa business council to facilitate the trafficking operation.

Sentencing Yang to 15 years behind bars for heading up an organised crime gang, a magistrate also ordered her to hand over a fine equal to twice the market value of the ivory she was convicted of smuggling or face another two years in prison.

According to court documents, Yang, who is reported to have worked as a Swahili translator and run a successful Chinese restaurant since arriving in Tanzania in the 1970s, organised the smuggling of ivory weighing a total of 1,889 tonnes.

Authorities believe she may have been active in the illicit ivory trade from as far back as the 1980s.

Speaking after Yang was jailed, campaigners said the prison time she was handed was not sufficiently long enough.

In comments made to the Reuters news agency, WWF Country Director Amani Ngusaru said: “[It] is not punishment enough for the atrocities she committed, by being responsible for the poaching of thousands of elephants in Tanzania.

“She ran a network that killed thousands of elephants.”

The poaching of ivory in Africa, which is estimated to have caused a 20% decline in the population of elephants across the continent over the course of the past 10 years, is driven by demand in Asia, where elephant tusk is used to make ornaments and jewellery.

Ivory is also used widely in Chinese medicine, and is thought by many in Asia to contain properties that can remove toxins from the body and contribute towards a glowing complexion.

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Number of rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa falls below 1,000 for first time in five years

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rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa falls below 1,000 f

The number of rhinos that were killed by poachers for their horns in South Africa fell below 1,000 for the first time in five years in 2018, according to the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs.

In a statement issued last week, Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane revealed that 769 rhinos lost their lives to poachers last year, making 2018 the third consecutive 12-month period during which the number of rhinos killed for their horns fell in South Africa.

As well as a fall in the number rhinos that were killed by poachers, last year also saw police in South Africa arrest 365 suspected rhino poachers, 229 of whom were detained inside or adjacent to Kruger National Park.

“The decline is not only indicative of the successful implementation of the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros Approach countrywide, but also a confirmation of the commitment and dedication of the men and women working at the coalface to save the species,” Mokonyane said.

“Combating rhino poaching remains a national priority, and as such, all the relevant government departments will continue their close collaboration to ensure that this iconic species is conserved for generations to come.

“Although we are encouraged by the national poaching figures for 2018, it is critical that we continue to implement collaborative initiatives to address the scourge of rhino poaching.”

While rhino poaching deaths fell in the country last year, there was an increase in the number of elephants who were killed by wildlife criminals.

Across 2018, 72 elephants lost their lives to poachers who killed them for their tusks, with all but one of these being slaughtered in Kruger National Park.

While cautiously welcoming the fall in the number of rhino poaching deaths in South Africa last year, WWF International warned that the global crisis affecting rhino numbers is very far from over, noting that poaching remains  high across the region.

Dr Margaret Kinnaird, WWF Wildlife Practice Leader, commented: “Corruption remains a major part of the challenge in addressing rhino poaching and trafficking of wildlife products.

“To address this, we need to consider what draws people into wildlife crime.

“We must find a way to empower people working and living around protected areas to be invested in a future with wildlife, including helping identify those who break the law.”

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American sniffer dog helps find cocaine stashed in decorative tombstone

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cocaine stashed in decorative tombstone

A US drug sniffer dog has helped his handlers locate a “decorative tombstone” stuffed full of cocaine that had been imported into the country from Canada.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drug dog Freddy sniffed out the shipment while working at an express consignment facility in Cincinnati.

Border officers moved to x-ray the container the tombstone was being shipped in after Freddy flagged it as potentially containing drugs, resulting in the discovery of a white powder hidden in a compartment inside the resin item.

Tests carried out later confirmed that the substance was in fact cocaine.

Commenting on the discovery, CBP Cincinnati Port Director Joshua Shorr said: “Our officers are committed to keep our country and communities safe from illegal and dangerous drugs.

“This seizure is one example of the quality enforcement work they do on a daily basis.”

In a statement relating to the seizure, CBP Cincinnati highlighted how its officers had recently discovered shipments of cocaine hidden inside items such as documents, piston heads and wheels.

At the beginning of January, CBP officers in Cincinnati intercepted two packages of tinfoil-wrapped sweets that later tested positive for methamphetamines.

After x-raying the packages of sweets, which were on their way from Mexico to Gridley in California, inspectors noted a number of anomalies, prompting them to take a closer look.

Having done so, they discovered that several of the sweets contained plastic capsules holding small bags of a white crystalline powder.

Police said both shipments contained a total of approximately 4kgs of methamphetamines.

“Cocaine and methamphetamines are dangerous and highly addictive stimulants,” the CBP said.

“Abuse of these drugs can lead to paranoia, exhaustion, heart conditions, convulsions, stroke, and death. Both are classified as Schedule II stimulants under the Controlled Substances Act.”

In a separate announcement, CBP officers in California last week revealed they had impounded more than 100kgs of cocaine concealed in produce cargo vessels arriving at Port Hueneme from Ecuador and Guatemala.

The drugs were discovered in two separate shipments, with just over 92kgs being found beneath the floorboards of a refrigerated vessel that had arrived from Ecuador, with the remainder uncovered on a cargo vessel arriving from Guatemala.

“This is the largest drug seizure at Port Hueneme in the last quarter of a century,” said LaFonda Sutton-Burke, CBP Port Director of the LA/Long Beach Seaport, and Port Hueneme.

“I’m extremely proud of the results of this joint effort, it shows the professionalism, vigilance and keen focus of both agencies in preventing dangerous drugs into our communities.”

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