Labbezanga, June 1, 2018, 17:00 hours. In this locality on the Mali-Niger border, as very often, Malian gendarmes carry out routine checks of the many vehicles crossing the border.  But, a Mercedes truck particularly attracts their attention.

Upon inspection, their doubts prove to be founded. The gendarmes discover in fact 515 cartons of cigarettes (the equivalent of 257 500 packages) of the brand American Legend, loaded in the trailer of the truck, according to their notes (minutes) to which we had access.

The driver is a 49-year-old Nigerien with eight children and 22 years of experience. However, he has no documents authorizing him to import cigarettes. Worse, according to the gendarmes, "the brand of cigarette he carried is not on the list of brands whose sale is authorized in Mali."

"I do not know the name of the owner. I only have his phone number"

The vehicle and its contents are immobilized on the morning of June 2, 2018.  The public prosecutor of Gao, in charge of the locality of Labbezanga, is informed by telephone.  But, the investigation itself will be laborious. During the interrogation, the driver acknowledges being the owner of the truck.  Otherwise, he remained uncooperative ... or acknowledged to knowing very little. Repeating throughout the interrogation: "I do not know the name of the owner. He's a Touareg from Niger and I only have his phone number."

"the brand of cigarette he carried is not on the list of brands whose sale is authorized in Mali."

"Who is the receiver? », the investigators charged? The driver tersely responds: "I also do not know the name of the recipient, but he is a merchant in Gao and I only have his phone number." Adding that he was just tasked had to send "goods" from Markoye (Burkina Faso), where the truck was loaded, to Gao for a sum of 1,000,000 Fcfa.

Released by a phone call

The driver was released two days later following a "phone call," according to a source close to the investigation, without giving more details.  The cargo remained in the hands of the customs, under supervision of the Malian Society of Tobacco and Matchsticks (SONATAM).

According to Issouf Traoré, director general of SONATAM, there is a partnership agreement in Mali between his structure and the police, as well as with the gendarmerie and the customs. "In these agreements, the security forces undertake to provide information on the presence of fraudulent cigarettes and networks of fraudsters and concealers. The gendarmerie, for example, undertakes to put at our disposal a team of investigators, "he affirms.

In return, "the company promises to train police, gendarmerie and customs officers on the detection of illegal cigarettes," said Taoré.

"We are sure that the attack on our store is not a coincidence"

A few weeks after the seizure of the contraband in in Labbezanga, on July 12, armed groups impose a "dead city" day in Gao.  Shops remained closed all day. On July 13, the SONATAM store where the seized contraband of Labbezanga was kept was vandalized and 400 cartons of cigarettes worth more than 83 million FCFA taken.

Simple coincidence between these different events? The answer is no, according to SONATAM. "We are sure that the attack on our store is far from a coincidence, certainly the sponsors of the Labbezanga cargo have a hand in it," says a company official.

The contraband trajectory

According to an expert and former agent of SONATAM, the fraud route, especially in the north of the country, leaves Lomé (Togo) transiting through Burkina Faso.  Adding that: "The different storage areas are located in the district of Mondoro (in the region of Mopti in Mali)" where the virtual absence of the state meets porous borders.

From there the stocks are then routed to Wani, a locality located on the left bank of the Niger River in the Commune of Taboye south of Bourem and Gossi in the Gourma Malian. Or to Tessit, in the Gao region, for a canoe trip to the Ansongo and Labbezanga areas, near the Mali-Niger border.  According to this former employee of the tobacco company, "pickup” and “trailer” trucks are then used for re-transportation of the stocks.

"The lower the contraband, the more SONATAM pays taxes to the Malian state."

According to a former trafficker, now an economic operator "more than 100 containers containing cigarettes pass the Lomé - Burkina corridor through to Mandiakuy- Mondoro - Labbezanga".  "A container of cigarettes gives more than 200,000 Euros (note: about 131,000,000 FCFA) to traffickers," says Issouf Traoré, CEO of SONATAM.

"If the cost of production of a package is equal to € 0.5 (about 330 FCFA, note) including the margin of the manufacturer, the goods are sold in the black market in France between 4 to 5 Euros (approximately 3300 FCFA, note); which makes a minimum gain of 4 Euros (note: 2620 FCFA approximately) per package for the trafficker ".

In the table tracing the tax payments of the company we consulted, it appears that "the less contraband smuggling, the more the Malian tobacco company pays taxes to the Malian state". For example, in 2006, SONATAM paid 16 billion Fcfa to the state, while the fraud rate was 41 percent, compared to CFAF 52 billion in 2017, at a smuggling rate of 5 percent. "