Trafficking in the fast lane

A new film features drug gangs in souped-up limos doing battle with the police at 120mph along France’s motorways as they deliver cocaine from Spain and north Africa. And it’s based on real events. A new film features drug gangs in souped-up limos doing battle with the police at 120mph along France’s motorways as they deliver cocaine from Spain and north Africa. And it’s based on real events.
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Trafficking has never been so aptly named. Drug smugglers and the French police are engaged in a deadly game of high-speed cat and mouse, in which stolen limousines flash down motorways at night stuffed with cannabis or cocaine.

The little-explored subject of "go-fasters " – drug-traffickers who zoom in almost ostentatious convoys of three or four cars from Spain to large French cities – will be examined in a thriller movie and an autobiographical book to be published soon.

The drivers, often young men from the troubled multiracial suburbs of French cities, can earn as much as €50,000 (£40,000) for one dash at speeds of up to 200kph (120mph) from southern Spain to Paris, Marseilles, Lyons or Lille. The French police and gendarmerie have developed increasingly sophisticated methods of disrupting the smugglers, including the use of satellite tracking and the creation of fake traffic jams to try to bring the speeding cars to a halt.

Watch a trailer for 'Go Fast'

Twenty-two "go-fast convoys" were intercepted in France last year and four so far this year – but the authorities fear that these represent just a fraction of the total trade. A French thriller film, Go Fast, based on the high-speed road smuggling business, will premiere on 1 October. In a book published this week, Au Coeur du Trafic, Bruno di Maio, 32, tells of his experiences as a "go-faster" who was never arrested by the French or Spanish police.

The term go-fast was originally applied by American authorities to the high-powered launches used by drug traffickers in the Caribbean. Similar methods were adopted by smugglers in the late 1990s to dodge customs and naval vessels in the Mediterranean and to move cannabis and cocaine from north Africa to Spain.

The idea was extended to the roads about seven years ago and has become one of the principal means of transporting drugs to French cities in the past two years. The method might appear to be absurd. Why would traffickers want to draw attention to themselves by speeding along motorways at 200kph?

By travelling at high-speed in convoy, the smugglers hope to make it too difficult, and too dangerous to the public, for the police to intervene. "Go fasters" usually stop dutifully at motorway toll booths but have sometimes smashed through the barriers if pursued by police.

Their favoured cars – mostly stolen in Germany but sometimes bought – include Citroë*or Mercedes limousines, or top-of-the-range four-wheel drive "Chelsea tractors", fitted with extra fuel tanks to reduce stops at service stations.

2. Watch a trailer for the film

"These people should not be romanticised," said a gendarmerie colonel, Marc de Tarlé. "They are thugs who are interested only in easy cash. They work for a few years, earn a fortune and retire."

But there does seem to be an element of bravado or sport involved in the go-fast trade. French police say that many of the drivers are recruited from the young men who hold so-called "rodeos" – impromptu races with stolen cars – on roads close to the poorer tower-block suburbs of French cities.

Di Maio, author of the autobiographical book on the go-fast trade, said: "Fear is with you all the time. It pumps your adrenalin and you come to need it, like a drug." He said drivers sometimes started for as little as €1,500 a time but worked their way up to earning €50,000 for a trip from southern Spain to France smuggling cocaine. He mocked the use of a Porsche sports car by the traffickers in the Go Fast film. No real go-faster, he said, would use a car with such a small fuel tank and so little space for drugs and extra fuel.

"You have to be a bit of an actor," he said. "If you are stopped, you have to know how to control your fear. You don't get your gun out straight away ... Above all, you must not use the product you are smuggling. I knew lots of go-fasters who needed to take a dose of courage through their nose before starting out. They risk blowing it completely if any problem comes up."

Typically, a "scout" car would lead the way for a convoy, checking on possible police traps, he said. Two limousines stuffed with cocaine or cannabis might follow five minutes behind. Another car, ready to intervene in the case of trouble, would bring up the rear.

To draw attention to the go-fast trade – and their increasingly sophisticated efforts to disrupt it – the French gendarmerie staged a demonstration for the press on the A9 autoroute near Perpignan last month.

Jean-Michel Colombani, head of Octris (Office Central de Répression du Trafic Illicite de Stupéfiants), the national agency which combats drugs smuggling said: "There is no way we can take action against cars when they are travelling at high speed. We have to get them either at a toll booth or at a service station. Service stations are dangerous [for the public]. We try to get them at the toll booths."

The press were shown an "exercise" in which a drugs-carrying limousine – supposedly identified by satellite – approached a toll booth. A gendarme, posing as the toll-booth operator, sprayed tear gas into the driver's face. Other gendarmes sprang from hiding and surrounded the car with tyre-puncturing devices. The demonstration begged the question: what would have happened if the go-fast driver had used his credit card to go through an automatic barrier?

A genuine gendarmerie trap for a go-fast car near Orléans two years ago was successful, but only after a high-speed chase. Gendarmes in plain clothes pounced on the co-driver as he filled the car at a motorway service station. The driver, still behind the wheel, put his foot down, abandoning his colleague and tearing the fuel hose away from the pump. He escaped at 200kph down the motorway, smashing through a toll barrier before he was finally stopped and arrested.

"Some of the drivers belong to big smuggling gangs," said a senior officer in the gendarmerie's special intervention unit, the GIGN. "Others are freelances who work for the highest bidder. Their employers hold them responsible for their cargoes, whatever happens. That's why they are so desperate to escape us. Their families are virtually hostage to the big traffickers."

The gendarmerie's special intervention unit has also experimented with creating fake road closures and traffic jams to trap the "go-fast" cars, but such operations are difficult to organise at night, when most of the smuggling cars are in transit.

All the same, the successes of the gendarmerie in the past two years have persuaded some of the larger traffickers to switch to helicopters or to more discreet, slow-moving cars. These have been nicknamed "Go Cool".

The Go Fast movie has had excellent early reviews. It has a rising star of French cinema, Roschdy Zem, as an undercover cop who penetrates a go-fast gang. Some scenes were filmed in the La Forestière housing estate at Clichy-sous-Bois, north of Paris, which was the starting point for the suburban riots which spread to almost every town in France in 2005.

The film, directed by Olivier van Hoofstadt, contains 15 minutes of high-speed chases and stunts worthy of a Hollywood thriller but is also, according to French cinema critics, a convincing exploration of the twin worlds of drug smuggling and international police co-operation.

The drug trade on screen

*The French Connection

This classic 1971 crime movie, starring Gene Hackman as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, above, tells the story of two New York cops trying to intercept a batch of heroin that's being trafficked in from France. A fictionalised adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name – which told the story of what at the time was the biggest seizure of the drug in US – the film won five Oscars, including best picture, best director and best actor in a Leading role for Hackman.

*Traffic

Steven Soderbergh's take on the international drugs trade tracked the path of narcotics from their growers in Mexico to their users in the US. Based in part on a Channel 4 mini-series, Traffik, the film's elliptical style and its great command of mood and atmosphere enabled it to offer a picture of the wide-ranging repercussions of drug trafficking across society. Hailed as a masterpiece, it had a stellar cast including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio Del Toro, and landed four Oscars in 2001.

*Blow

Blow tells the true-life story of George Jung, who became the first American to smuggle cocaine into the US on a large scale. Jung, born in Boston, Massachusetts, started off his career selling marijuana and ended up as the right-hand man of Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug trafficker. The film, which starred Penélope Cruz, Ray Liotta and Johnny Depp as Jung, took a non-judgemental look at the drugs trade and Jung's career, but received mixed reviews on its release.

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