Smugglers on the mountain crests between Switzerland and Italy.
Based on an interview with Tullio Abbate and Véhicule publisher Christopher Kippenberger. Read the beginning of the story in "The Untold Story of Italian Cigarette Smuggling Part 1".
This was clearly big business—the smugglers knew how much they stood to make if they were successful, and how much they stood to lose if they made any missteps along the way. Human error aside, the most significant weak link in their workflows was their equipment. While they had progressed from wooden rowboats to fiberglass-hulled powerboats, there were always advancements on the horizon that could make their business even more profitable. Big engines, high-flow carburetors, surface drives and cleaver propellers were the latest and greatest on the market. These innovations were all home-grown—born and bred on Italian waters, where every night felt like race night. This equipment would eventually make its way to the United States and onwards to be claimed by Miami’s latest hotshot boatbuilder, but the European roots of these crucial advancements were undeniable.
Each professional powerboat race was a scouting mission, with smugglers and customs agents alike keeping an eye out for which boat would be best suited for them. The races were veritable showrooms for the biggest builders in the region to prove their prowess, not only to sports fans but to potential buyers.
Cigarettes hidden in a concrete block.
By the early 1990s, smuggling had made its way to Italy’s Balkan-facing east coast. At that point, cigarette smuggling had become bigger than anyone could have ever expected. So big in fact that the nationwide effort came to be controlled by a central headquarters across the Italian-Swiss border in Lugano. There, by phone, a group of logistics experts managed an army of nearly 400 boats from a network of luxury apartments and five-star hotels.
Nightly, boats would cross the Adriatic Sea and dock in Montenegro. At a freeport, these ships would take on giant shipments of cigarettes intended for a freeport in Malta—as long as the goods were going from freeport to freeport, they were considered tax-free. At their Lugano-based commander’s direction, the ships would cross back over the Adriatic and reconfigure their routes to make a stop in Bari, Italy, where they would offload the bulk of the freeport shipment, with the little that was left over continuing on to Malta. This process would repeat, and repeat, and repeat.
The fate of cigarettes is well-documented. They went from being omnipresent, both on the lips of consumers and in the marketing landscape, to being nearly shunned in much of the world. Cigarettes were everywhere, with their branding forming some of the most iconic visuals in the sporting world. Ayrton Senna is forever linked with John Player Special, Camel and Marlboro liveries. Michael Schumacher is no different, with his name alone evoking the red-and-white color scheme. Mika Häkkinen and his McLaren Mercedes seem incomplete without West branding. The list goes on.
Cover image of the Corriere newspaper showing a gunfight between smugglers and Guardia di finanza.
This is not to lament the downfall of cigarettes, but rather to draw attention to their role in a series of interconnected narratives that span country, class, era and sector of society. History repeats itself endlessly—if it’s not cigarettes, it’s something else that follows the same trajectory for the same set of reasons. Despite that, we continue to be surprised, and our understanding is time and again reshaped by what we thought we could predict and regulate.
Read all about modern day boat smugging operations in Véhicule Magazine.