The first underground factory in Europe for the illegal manufacture of cigarettes was discovered in the province of Málaga during February. The clandestine operation was run by a gang of 20, including British nationals, who kept six Eastern European workers living almost permanently inside the cavern.

Police said the clandestine plant was discovered on a remote farm near Monda, 20 kilometres north of Marbella It covered 200 square metres and was equipped with machines producing 3,500 cigarettes an hour, operating 24 hours a day. Fresh air was pumped in, powered by a generator which required refuelling every day.

The underground chamber could only be accessed via a trapdoor in a stable block which was covered by shipping container. A fork-lift truck was used to move the container, revealing the trapdoor which led into a maze of tunnels, ending in the secret bunker four metres below the surface.

A police operation which ended on February 17 resulted in the detention of 20 British, Lithuanian and Ukrainian suspects, 12 of whom are being held behind bars. However, those arrested would not explain to officers how to get into the underground factory.

By the time investigators discovered the trapdoor and reached the workers, the generator which pumped in clean air had run out of diesel and those trapped inside were in danger of asphyxiation. Sources at the Guardia Civil expressed dismay at the lack of humanity which had been shown by those detained, several of whom were living in luxury homes in Marbella or Málaga. Europol has estimated that the illegal factory was generating €635,000 per week.

During the operation, which included raids on 13 residential properties and warehouses, police seized more than three million cigarettes, along with 20 kilos of hashish, 144 kilos of marijuana which was being grown in the bunker and three weapons, plus GPS tracking and jamming devices. Police said the cigarettes, branded Cartel, were destined for France, Germany and especially the UK.

The British press reported that one of those detained, 31-year-old Daniel Dobbs from Molton in North Yorkshire, was serving a long sentence for drugs trafficking when he vanished from his cell at Hatfield Lakes open prison in November 2018. The UK’s National Crime Agency tracked him to Spain where he was detained along with the other 19 suspects last month.

Europol has estimated that the illegal factory was generating €635,000 per week.