Ted Balaker says: "It's the drug war's little cousin: Laws create a black market in cigarettes, so smugglers step in to make money. What they're doing isn't inherently dangerous, but the black market makes it more violent than it otherwise would be. That gives ATF a public safety justification to arrest smugglers and add them to the ranks of incarceration nation. And the agency says the problem is the penalties for cigarette smuggling aren't tough enough! When both sides smuggle cigarettes and make money doing it, it gets harder to tell the 'good' guys from the 'bad' guys."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, (and Explosives!) has been fighting cigarette smuggling by smuggling cigarettes. Agents buy smokes in low-tax states like Virginia and sell them in high-tax states like New York. The sting operations are supposed to help build cases against smugglers, but ATF is cashing in too.
By law ATF may keep booty to cover “operational expenses.” As if the line between law breakers and law enforcers wasn’t blurry enough already, a recent inspector general report highlights a “serious lack of oversight” at the agency. Seems that confidential informants have been allowed to pocket, not expenses, but profits amounting to millions of dollars. ATF agents have “misused” $162 million in sting operation profits and “lost track” of $420 million cigarettes.
But hey, don’t federal agents have better things to do! Well, ATF’s own most-wanted list features men suspected of crimes like murder, so yeah, agents could focus more time busting violent criminals. Then again, cigarette smuggling is so much more lucrative!