Britons and Dutch battle for control of cannabis smuggling

Spain intercepts less than a tenth of the drug traffic from Morocco, writes Elizabeth Nash in Madrid
Spain is targeting a network of British traffickers seeking to control the smuggling of cannabis resin from Morocco to northern Europe via Seville, so ousting the Dutch smugglers who have traditionally run the racket.

The Civil Guard in Seville recently seized 614kg of hashish hidden in a British lorry and on 7 August arrested its driver, Frederick Sheldrake, a 45-year-old Londoner, who is in a Seville jail awaiting trial. He was stopped heading north on the main motorway to Cordoba, en route for Britain. Sniffer dogs found hashish in the doors.

Police say the drugs had been stored in an industrial warehouse in Seville, and that the swoop followed months of inquiries. The investigation began with the detention of another Briton, later released after questioning, and a Spaniard in connection with an underground hashish depot in a house near Seville where the two had lived for some time.

"We believe a gang of Britons is organising the transit of hashish from Morocco via Barbate on the coast near Cadiz, and establishing Seville as an important distribution centre for onward transit to Britain," a Civil Guard spokesman said. "We think they are trying to get in on some of the action that has up to now been dominated by the Dutch." Investigations were continuing, he said, and further arrests were likely.

Some 300 Britons are in Spanish jails, more than three-quarters of them for drugs, according to the British Consulate in Madrid. Most drugs offences are committed along the southern coast of Spain, where a number of high- profile drugs murders have taken place. The murders that have occurred on the Costa del Sol are thought to relate to cocaine trafficking and money-laundering rather than hashish. But Britons in southern Spain are thought to provide natural intermediaries between Moroccan, Spanish and British hashish dealers.

A source in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, said: "Many dual nationality Spanish-Moroccan families living in southern Spain have family in the Rif [Morocco's cannabis-growing area]. British and Dutch residents on the Costa can make the contact. And there is a large Moroccan immigrant community in Holland." A network of contacts is thereby woven for the trickiest part of the process - the transport across Europe - which is what ratchets up the price of hashish on the streets of Britain. Some traffickers prefer the sea route, taking hashish by boat directly from Morocco to Wales, or the west of England or Scotland.

"You could probably buy hashish for less than pounds 200 a kilo from the Moroccan supplier," the Rabat source said. "It would cost pounds 1,000 a kilo if you bought it in Spain, probably arrive in Holland worth about pounds 1,650 a kilo and would cost pounds 2,000 on the street in Britain. Obviously you can make a killing if you come out here to buy direct, but then you've got to run all the risks and expenses of transport."

Hashish is smuggled from Morocco to Spain in crop-spraying planes, fishing boats, lorries and even pedalos, to be dumped on beaches the length of the Spanish coast. Concealing packets inside the body, by so-called culeros, is losing favour due to the widespread use by customs of x-rays. Most of the onward smuggling is done in trucks.

A British drugs expert who recently visited Morocco and Spain said international co-operation between police and customs was "very good", but the figures suggest scant success. The Spanish authorities seized 152 tons of cannabis resin in 1996, and have made some spectacular hauls this year, including the capture of six tons on a merchant ship off Alicante in January, and another eight tons off Cartagena in March. But it is thought some 93 per cent of hashish smuggled through Spain from Morocco slips through undetected.