Quebec police have arrested 19 people alleging they were part of a crime ring that sold contraband tobacco and illegal narcotics in the Quebec City and Montérégie regions.

The operation, dubbed Project Château, began early Thursday morning.

RCMP, Quebec provincial police and local police in the Quebec City area are executing arrest warrants for a total of 22 people. 

'It's not trivial to buy illegal cigarettes. You put your money directly into the pockets of criminals.' —Sgt. Luc Bessette, RCMP

The list includes two people believe to be members of an outlaw motorcycle gang.

Police said the crime ring was split into two cells — one for the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and the other for the south shore.

Each cell was allegedly responsible for obtaining contraband tobacco products and delivering them to different affiliated distributors based in the Quebec City area.

The proceeds from the sale of the cigarettes funded other criminal activity including the production and sale of illegal narcotics, RCMP Sgt. Luc Bessette said at a news conference in Quebec City on Thursday.

"We have here a known criminal organization that is using the sale of cigarettes to make drugs to sell," said Bessette.

Those arrested Thursday face charges ranging from the unlawful sale of drug and tobacco products, conspiracy to sell those products and participating in a criminal organization.

Arrests linked to 2008 raids

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Quebec police displayed cash, contraband cigarettes, weapons and drugs that were seized during a series of raids in 2008. Those raids, say police, led to Thursday's arrests. ((RCMP))

Bessette said the arrests are connected to a series of police searches conducted in March 2008 in Quebec City, Montreal, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Sherbrooke and Lacolle.

As part of those searches, police seized 298 cases of contraband tobacco, 20,000 methamphetamine pills, cocaine and marijuana. Police also seized six handguns, three rifles, 14 vehicles and about $75,000 in cash.

Standing before a table displaying some of the seized items on Thursday, Bessette said the case should send a message to anyone who buys cheap, contraband cigarettes.

"It's not trivial to buy illegal cigarettes. You put your money directly into the pockets of criminals. They use the money to make the drugs that are sold in our communities," said Bessette.