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Importers of vast amounts of illegal drugs and cigarettes jailed

Custody photos of Varun Bhardwaj and Anand Tripathi
Varun Bhardwaj and Anand Tripathi

**The following has been issued by the South West Regional Organised Crime Unit**

Two men have been sentenced today (15 December) for the importation of class A and B drugs with a street value of £28.9million.

Following a 71-day trial at Isleworth Crown Court, Varun Bhardwaj, 39 from Hounslow and Anand Tripathi, 61 from Middlesex were both sentenced to 19 years and 15 years respectively after being found guilty of importing cocaine, cannabis and cigarettes into the UK hidden in shipments of perishable goods.

Bhardwaj was handed an additional two-year sentence, which will run concurrently, for possession of 1kg of cannabis, with a street value over £10,000, and the failure to disclose a PIN for one of his mobile phones.

The South West Regional Organised Crime Unit (SWROCU) began investigating the case in April 2022 following a 999 call made to Avon and Somerset Police by a farmer near Bridgwater in Somerset who was shocked to find kilo-block packages within his normal delivery of animal feed.

The shipping container was inspected by SWROCU officers and found to contain 189 kilos of cocaine with a street value of more than £15million. The container had been shipped from Columbia to London Gateway Port.

Tatab Ltd, a customs clearing agent based in Hounslow was inextricably linked to the importation and transport of this illegal shipment. Anand Tripathi was the director and company secretary of Tatab – a company that facilitates the import and export of goods.

Varun Bhardwaj, who tried to distance himself from Tatab saying he had limited involvement with the company was found to be the operations manager and reported to Tripathi. Bhardwaj also owned and drove a Range Rover with the personalised registration plate TA07 TAB (TATAB).

Tatab was just one of a number of companies created or run by Tripathi and Bhardwaj to try to conceal their illegal activities. The pair played a game of smoke and mirrors – setting up bogus businesses and using pseudonyms in order to cover their tracks and distance themselves from the illegal imports.

In November 2022 officers from SWROCU arrested Tripathi and Bhardwaj. At the same time UK Border Force was holding another container at the Port of Felixstowe linked to the men. This time the shipment contained oranges from South Africa and on inspection 49 kilos of cocaine were discovered and seized with a street value of almost £4milliion.

The investigation, which was supported by the Metropolitan Police, UK Border Force, HMRC and the NCA, then linked the pair with a further two shipments dating back to September 2021 and January 2022 where cocaine and cannabis were hidden inside containers of yams.

In addition to the drugs, between February and October 2022 Tripathi and Bhardwaj imported three shipments of cigarettes – a total of 18,680,000 cigarettes – in containers of Bombay mix, coir fibre and biscuits, with the two men evading the £9.7milllion excise and customs duty which should have been payable.

DCI Paul Fisher, of SWROCU, said: “The amount seized over a 13-month period goes to show the significant involvement these individuals had in bringing commercial amounts of drugs and cigarettes into the UK. By working closely and collaboratively with our partner agencies this organised crime network has been dismantled and vast quantities of drugs destined for our streets have been eradicated.

“These are two very serious criminals who I’m glad to see have been given substantial sentences to reflect the magnitude of their offending.”

Richard Partridge, from the CPS, said: “These two men played vital roles in trying to flood UK streets with huge quantities of illegal drugs. The cost and damage to lives that drugs cause in our society is incalculable.

“This conspiracy was only made possible by Anand Tripathi’s experience in importation and customs clearance, and Varun Bhardwaj’s willingness to assume day to day management of their operation.

“There were clearly others involved in the scheme who haven’t yet been identified but this successful operation and their substantial sentences serves as a warning that authorities in the UK work together to disrupt and prosecute smugglers.”

Tom Hunnisett, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “Tripathi and Bhardwaj were smuggling cigarettes into the UK on an industrial scale and they evaded more than £9million in tax. That’s money that should have been supporting our vital public services.

“This case shows smugglers are often involved in other organised crime. We encourage anyone with information about the illegal sale of tobacco or alcohol to report it online.”