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Nine indicted in Maryland for cigarette smuggling

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Maryland officials on Thursday announced the indictments of nine people accused of cigarette smuggling in connection with a stepped-up effort to cut down on the illicit tobacco trade.

In the last fiscal year, Maryland's comptroller's office arrested 115 people for cigarette smuggling, double the number it arrested the year before, as officials see more people resorting to profitable black-market sales.

"There is an explosion of cigarette smuggling going on," said Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, whose office enforces state cigarette and tobacco tax laws. "I'm not sure if it's the bad economy or the fact that Virginia has the lowest tax rate in the country and Maryland has one of the highest."

Cigarette taxes in Virginia are 30 cents per pack, while in the District and Maryland, taxes are $2.50 and $2 per pack respectively. Cigarette smugglers profit from buying large quantities of cigarettes in Virginia and transporting them to states where the tax is higher, selling them to stores or even from the trunks of their cars and pocketing the difference in price, Mr. Franchot said.

The nine people who were arrested in Maryland after crossing into the state from Virginia with thousands of packs of cigarettes in tow face charges of possession, transport and conspiracy to transport unstamped cigarettes. The penalty for the crime is a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of $50 per carton of cigarettes, Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks said.

Officials announced the indictments outside the Prince George's County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro in front of a large display of previously confiscated cigarettes at the county courthouse. The display drew stares from passers-by, some of whom asked if officials were giving the packs away.

The nine people indicted were arrested in five unrelated incidents in July and August. In total, 14,875 packs of cigarettes were seized. Maryland would have collected $29,750 in taxes if the packs were sold in the state, officials said.

Though investigators have not tied the nine people to any large-scale smuggling ring, they said gangs are more frequently forgoing participation in the drug trade for the black-market cigarette trade.

"It's too darn lucrative for these groups to ignore," Mr. Franchot said.

The persons indicted on the cigarette smuggling charges are: Jose Gilberto Perez, 53, of Baltimore; Eredania Perez-de-Hernandez, 41, of Baltimore; Maoze Abdallh Ibrahim, 26, of East Orange, N.J.; Abdoulaye Akmoudou, 41, of Newark, N.J.; Alicia Walker, 34, of Bloomfield, N.J.; Livingus Agubu, 39, of New York, N.Y.; Felix Cruz, 46, of New York, N.Y.; Feby Pledger, 45, of Far Rockaway, N.Y.; and Bernard Cribbs, 58, of Far Rockaway, N.Y.

The announcement came the day after a Prince George's County police officer pleaded guilty to his role in a separate large-scale cigarette smuggling case.

The U.S. District Attorney's Office for Maryland said former Prince George's County police officer Chong Chen Kim, 43, of Odenton was involved in a cigarette-trafficking scheme that moved more than 17 million cigarettes and contributed to a tax loss of $2,661,240. Four other men, including another former county police officer, also have pleaded guilty in the case.

Officials said the cases announced Thursday and the officers' cases were not related.

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