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Drug abuse: Seizures double in a year as traffickers turn to Channel tunnel

The Channel tunnel is the fastest growing route for drug trafficking, unpublished figures reveal. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, talks to customs officers about changing tactics and the new threat.

Seizures of drugs being smuggled under the Channel have doubled in the past year, statistics obtained by The Independent reveal.

The amount of cocaine found on vehicles being brought to Britain through the tunnel has leapt sevenfold in the past 12 months, more than four times as much heroin has been confiscated and three times the quantity of cannabis. The value of the drugs snatched has doubled since 1996 to about pounds 16.8m- worth at street prices in 1997.

Customs officers say that drug traffickers are increasingly targeting the tunnel. The undersea network is considered to have several advantages for the smugglers including hiding the origin of the couriers as everyone comes through France.

Among the recent trends noticed by Customs are an increase in age of the couriers - a 75-year-old Dutchman was found with 7.5kg of cocaine hidden in his caravan - and traffickers pretending to be businessmen.

The smugglers are also becoming more ingenious about hiding their illegal goods. For example in October 7kg of cocaine was found hidden in the front seat passenger's emergency airbag and a Brazilian woman hid cocaine in plaster casts on her legs.

Ever since the tunnel was opened in November 1994 there has been fear that it would become a major route for drug trafficking. Andrew Filmer, of the Customs and Excise's Tourist Anti Smuggling division at Coquelles, near Calais, which checks people with vehicles entering Britain, said: "We're finding a lot more Class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which is reflecting the increase demand. There's growing confidence about using the tunnel to bring in drugs. There's also more smugglers dressing up as businessmen as a cover."

Bob Arthurs, head of Customs and Excise at Waterloo International, which deals with foot passengers on the Eurostar, said couriers swallowing packages of cocaine or hiding them inside their body was still a popular method of smuggling at the moment. "The numbers and amounts are steadily going up, people are becoming more aware of the advantage of Eurostar and how it can help lose their identity."

For example traffickers from South American countries that have drug connections are attempt to disguise where they have come from by travelling through several countries. A typical route is from Brazil to Portugal, Spain and then France. Most of the smugglers, however, are British, Dutch, and German.

Among the smugglers recently caught include a man from Amsterdam who was found to have swallowed 91 packages of cocaine wrapped in condoms, which took a week to pass through his body. He later got six years in jail.

On 20 December, a 51-year-old German woman was stopped in Waterloo. Inside the lining of her suitcase officers found 4.5kg of heroin, worth about pounds 500,000, and the largest ever haul at the station. The narcotics are believed to be from Turkey and were on their way to one of the Turkish drug families in north London.

The street value of the drugs seizure by British customs officers based at Coquelles near Calais, have increased from pounds 7.7m in 1996 to at least pounds 15.1m this year. The number of commercial or large seizures rose from 16 to 27, pornography finds rose from 22 to 49 and firearms and illegal weapons went up from five to 11.

Heroin showed the biggest leap from 15kg to 68.5kg, cocaine rose from 4kg to 28kg, cannabis was 542kg last year, this year it was 1,400 kg, while the amount of ecstasy fell from 142kg to 28kg, although the 1996 total included one seizure of 141kg.