Removing vehicle identification numbers and forging documents, an international network imported stolen luxury cars from Europe to Israel by way of Haifa Port in recent months, the Coastal District Police said on Tuesday.
The suspects include a Haifa Port worker and two employees of a company that works with the Customs Authority at the port, police said.
On Tuesday, police arrested 20 suspects believed to be involved in running the network, following a collaborative investigation between agents from the Tax Authority’s Yahalom unit and detectives from the Coastal District’s Special Investigations Unit.
The suspects worked with accomplices in a number of countries in Northern and Western Europe, who moved stolen cars onto ships bound for Haifa Port, from where they would be taken and sold in Israel with counterfeit documents.
Police said so far they know of 10 vehicles sold this way, all of them luxury cars, mainly BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes, worth some NIS 500,000 each.
Police said the suspects are not organized crime figures or suspected of being well-connected in the underworld. Rather, most of them are Israeli professionals who would purchase the stolen cars from Israeli middle- men at below market value.
The police are investigating the extent of the business, whether more cars have been smuggled in this way, and where they ended up in Israel.
The investigation has been carried out for the past few months with the full collaboration of Interpol.
The police intend to seek extended remand for four central suspects among the 20 arrested.
During a tour of their facilities at Haifa Port in July, customs officials described how every shipping container entering the country is profiled in order to determine its level of risk. Out of the 10% that are scanned, about a third contain some sort of illegal contraband.
Customs officials also said that since the Egypt border fence went up last year, and with greater turmoil in neighboring Syria and Lebanon, they have seen smugglers try other ways to bring contraband into Israel, including by way of the ports.