Border town faces fresh threat to imperial lifeline

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In the Spanish town of La Linea, north of Gibraltar, they hate the border that sunders the two communities. Spaniards in the lee of the Rock - 1,500 of whom walk through hefty police controls every day to work in the British colony - want a little more human contact.

"La Linea and Gibraltar are linked by blood and geography," said the town's mayor, Jose Antonio Fernandez Pons. "For us the sovereignty issue is quite distinct from domestic day-to-day policy. We want some mutual understanding: the prosperity of the whole area depends on it."

Madrid, which claims the British colony as its own, has imposed stiff border controls against Gibraltar's smuggling and alleged money laundering that lead to long queues and traffic delays. Spaniards who work on the Rock resent the wearying hold-ups. And Gibraltarians are put off from crossing to La Linea's lively market, causing a recent slump in trade of some 40 per cent in an already depressed area.

La Linea is furious. "We've always been ignored by Madrid in its policy towards Gibraltar," Mr Pons complained. "We want to be taken into account. I'm not sure these measures are effective against drug trafficking and money laundering."

He is incensed by warnings from Spain's new Foreign Minister, Abel Matutes, that the border may be closed if Gibraltar does not stamp out illegal activities. Mr Pons said: "We are in total disagreement with Mr Matutes' suggestion, and I've sought a meeting with him to answer our demands."

La Linea owes its existence to the British colony. For centuries the people of the city serviced the imperial rulers of the Rock, rather as medieval traders and artisans gathered at the gate of the rich man's castle. When Franco closed the border in 1967, he cut the city's lifeline.

Tens of thousands of inhabitants dispersed throughout Spain. The 65,000 who remained in this scruffy, unprepossessing border town, scratched a living by subsistence farming, shady dealing or contraband. Smuggling was the underside of what they had been doing for centuries: supplying the British garrison. The infrastructure was there. Poverty and unemployment did the rest.

Unemployment in the Campo de Gibraltar, the area around the Rock, is 40 per cent, the highest in Spain. Father Pepe Chamizo, a priest who has worked for 20 years among drug addicts in this marginal society, said: "We've got two frontiers here. One with Gibraltar, the other with Morocco, which is only a few miles away. Some effects are positive, like our tolerance of different races and cultures, and our improvisational talent. But others are negative, especially the spirit of trapicheo [shady dealing]."

Fr Chamizo is convinced that Gibraltar is a bridgehead for drug dealing. "There was a period last year when it was frozen, but in the last four months there's a lot more hashish around. The traders are eluding the controls."

The local Guardia Civil picked up nine tons of hashish smuggled from Morocco in the last four months. "This is one of the areas of Spain where there is the most contraband, because Morocco is just across the water," said Lieutenant Sebastian, captain of La Linea's Civil Guard.

Tobacco smuggling has declined since last year, he says, with the elimination of most of the Gibraltar-based smugglers' launches. But women known as matuteras still stuff cartons of cigarettes into their blouses and smuggle them across the border or fling them over the perimeter fence.

Hashish trafficking, however, remains undiminished, much of it unloaded on to La Linea's long tranquil beach at La Atunera and further up the coast.

Gibraltar is a haven of drug- money laundering, Fr Chamizo said, something the Gibraltarians deny. "You can buy a company for pounds 300 and shunt money from one to the other and no one knows what's going on. It's called financial engineering. Spanish banks open a branch in Gibraltar and use it to launder money," he claimed.

Traffickers from Galicia, Spain's drug-running mecca, visit Gibraltar banks, Fr Chamizo said, and briefcases of money have been intercepted at the frontier. "The Gibraltarians are against all this, but they have no resources of their own. If there's no aid to compensate for Britain's economic withdrawal from the Rock, they've got to get an income from somewhere."