Spanish police have rescued six workers who were left trapped and gasping for air in a counterfeit cigarette factory located in a bunker 4m underground, police and Europol said on Thursday.
Both Europol and Spanish police said that it was the first underground counterfeit cigarette factory discovered in the EU.
Last week, police found the site underneath some stables near Moran, a mountain town in the southern province of Malaga.
Capable of producing more than 3,500 cigarettes per hour, the manufacturing complex was fitted with living quarters and beds, they said in separate statements.
“When officers entered the clandestine factory, they found six workers inside who were having serious difficulties breathing” because the generator that was used to pump air into the bunker had run out of gas, the police said.
Police arrested 20 people suspected of running the operation early on Feb. 13, but none of them mentioned that six Ukrainian workers were still locked inside, leaving them “abandoned to their fate.”
“When they noticed the lack of air, they headed to the exit of the ‘bunker,’ which was blocked from the outside, leading them to start screaming and banging on the container blocking the exit, but officers on the surface could not hear their calls for help because the installation was soundproof,” they said.
By the evening, officers managed to find the underground factory and used a forklift to move the shipping container that was hiding the entrance, rescuing the workers trapped inside.
“If the officials had not found the clandestine factory in time, the lack of oxygen would soon have made the conditions in the underground installations incompatible with the survival of the workers who were there,” they said.
Among those arrested was a 30-year-old Briton identified only by the initials “D.D.” who was believed to be one of the ringleaders.
Wanted by the British authorities, he went on the run when on prison furlough, while serving time for drug trafficking.
Europol said the workers had been forced to work “in extremely dangerous and toxic conditions” and were “not allowed to leave the facility on their own.”
It suspects the criminal group distributed the cigarettes on the European black market.
As part of the operation, police seized 153,000 packs of cigarettes, as well as a quantity of cannabis resin and marijuana.
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