"We have had very successful cooperation with famous international tobacco companies," an agency spokesman said via e-mail. "We have special phone and fax lines to keep contact with them."
But nimble counterfeiters are good at the cat-and-mouse game. They typically operate in rural backwaters and are decentralized, with cigarettes produced in one place, packaging in another and smokes hand-packed in a third. Outlaw factories sometimes are set up in underground chambers or on hillsides, with machinery hauled in by workers or donkeys and reassembled in caves.
"It's an amazing feat, what they have done," said Mulvey of Japan Tobacco.
With unemployment high and most villagers desperately poor, local officials tend to look the other way. After raiding parties shut them down, the operations sprout again like mushrooms in the woods.
A major gateway for bogus Marlboros from China are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. U.S. customs agents there have seized tens of millions of counterfeits in the last 18 months and have captured a few traffickers.