Mike Bailey: Customs officer who chased drug smugglers around the Caribbean

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The Independent Online

His pleasant manner as a Customs officer concealing a steely determination to catch the most wily of bootleggers, Mike Bailey achieved notable successes against drug smugglers in Britain and the British Virgin Islands. The cleverest tried to hide drugs inside a tombstone being shipped through Felixstowe. Suspecting it had a less worthy purpose, Bailey asked a stonemason to chip off the surface layer. He sealed it up again after Customs officers had removed its illegal contents. They tracked the headstone to a London warehouse, where a patient watch resulted in arrests.

Bailey's most envied role was being seconded to the West Indies for two years from 1989 to help reorganise the Customs service of BVI. There he found at least some of his officers leading happy lives uncomplicated by having to enforce regulations. "They all seemed to have relatives, friends or neighbours who believed that they need pay no duties," his wife Barbara recalled. "A father-son relationship, for example, was thought to excuse payment on a car imported by ferry from the US Virgin Islands. Mike needed all his tact and firmness to show them the error of their ways."

Britain and America share sovereignty of the archipelago, and when Bailey took over his posting he found he would also have to share a US warship or Customs launch whenever he wanted to chase smugglers. Eventually he obtained a launch to patrol the British waters in Her Majesty's exclusive service. Drugs from South America were (and probably still are) being routed to the US through the Virgins, mainly the American-owned islands but with a few people in the British Virgins accumulating unexplained wealth. Neither Bailey nor his wife, who taught English part-time in the islands' prison, ever experienced violence, but they did experience Hurricane Hugo shortly after their arrival.

Mike Bailey began his career at Harwich and served at Great Yarmouth and Tilbury before Felixstowe, where he lived for nearly 40 years, taking an active part in Rotary and bridge clubs.

Donald Black

Michael John Bailey, Customs officer: born Ipswich 16 March 1938; married Barbara Brinded (two sons, one daughter); died Felixstowe 30 June 2011.