Fears grow over Gibraltar's drug-runners

An illicit and lucrative trade using fast boats is disturbing governmen ts in London and Madrid, Phil Davison writes from the Rock

"Miami Vice has got nothing on this." A British resident of Gibraltar was giving me the guided tour of more than 50 matt-black-painted "Phantom" speedboats lined up along floating jetties in the city's Watergardens harbour.

Cocky young men with pony tails and earrings strutted around the harbour, where the odd open door of quayside warehouses revealed mountains of cartons of Winston cigarettes guarded by burly bodyguards and Alsatians. The young men are known here as The Winston Boys but the rising price range of their sports cars suggests more and more are moving into the richer drugs trade.

"When the boats leave stacked with Winstons, they're going to make a few grand in a matter of minutes with a quick run to La Atunara [a fishing village across the Spanish frontier]. It's blatant, virtually unchecked, even condoned," the Briton said."It'swhen they leave empty that worries me. That means they're on the cannabis run, or nowadays often for heroin, between Morocco and Spain.

``The other day, one of those lads came in from a `cruise' and left a black rubbish bag for safekeeping behind the bar of a waterfront pub.`Don't lose it, mate, there's 90 grand in there', he told the barman. Hence the Rollers and Corvettes you'll see around here."

Multi-million pound cigarette smuggling, rising drugs traffic using Gibraltar-based boats and growing reports of money-laundering by big-time crooks, including Arabs and Colombians based on Spain's Costa del Sol, are causing increasing concern in both Whitehall and Madrid.

What angers Spain, whose tobacco retail industry is state-controlled, is that it loses hundreds of millions of pounds a year to the illegal trade from Gibraltar. And the Gibraltar government of Chief Minister Joe Bossano makes a fortune. The more cigarettes that come in - legally, mostly from the US but in quantities that would have killed off the entire smoking population of Gibraltar years ago had this been their final destination - the more money the government makes, perfectly legally, on import duty.

What is increasingly worrying London is that Gibraltar, part of the EU as a dependent territory of Britain, has been failing to comply with EU directives intended to curb money-laundering and other deviations from normal banking practice. It has built upa huge backlog of such directives, which has led the European Commission to send what some diplomats called "threatening letters" to London.

In July Britain appointed a special Financial Services Commissioner, John Millner, to head a watchdog body overseeing the territory's banking sector.

Spain's best-known anti-corruption judge, Baltasar Garzon, insists his investigations into Colombian and other drug rings often lead to a money-laundering connection in Gibraltar. The Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, says "illicit trafficking andmoney-laundering" in Gibraltar will top his agenda in London talks next week with the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd.

"Tobacco smuggling is robbing Spain of income and drug smuggling is affecting the health of Spanish citizens," a Spanish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said."That's important to us. Every year, more and more drugs have been confiscated in the area and the problem is still increasing."

For the first time since Gibraltar's constitution as a dependent territory was drawn up 25 years ago, the British Government, irked by Mr Bossano's go-it-alone policies and feet-dragging over EU directives, is believed to have discussed using the Queen's"reserved powers" to go over the heads of the local government. Foreign Office officials have dropped hints of some kind of" direct action" to speed up implementation of EC directives, although Foreign Office spokesmen and the Governor's offi c e here deny any dramatic move is imminent."The present British Government would bend over backwards to ensure this was not necessary," said one Whitehall source. "It would be a very serious step.

Section 86 of Gibraltar's 1969 constitution says: "There is reserved to Her Majesty full power to make laws from time to time for the peace, order and good government of Gibraltar (including, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, laws am e nding or revoking this constitution)."

Any such British intervention would not go down well here. Mr Bossano, a former trade-union leader, was re-elected by a landslide in 1992 and his "self-determination" stand against both Britain and Spain appears to have maintained his popularity among Gibraltarians, many of whom benefit from the smuggling spin-off. Not so with the several thousand British residents or workers, many of whom commute from Spain and who complain angrily that they were discriminated against by a 1993 law pushed through by MrBossano that makes it more difficult for a Briton to work here than a Spaniard or other EC member.

"The smuggling has got out of hand, says Jackie Fielding, who has been a travel agent here for 18 years and runs the British Citizens' Association. "The place is on the verge of economic collapse and unless Gibraltar cleans its act up, they're not going

to be able to stop it."

British diplomats here and in Madrid admit they are concerned over the tobacco smuggling but play down the extent of drugs running and money-laundering. They say more heroin and cocaine enter Spain through its north-western region of Galicia. Perhaps, s a y critics of the smuggling, but Britain is not responsible for Galicia.

Although still a cornerstone of the Gibraltar economy, cigarette smuggling has actually dropped because open EU borders have led to an increase in cigarette smuggling into Spain from Portugal and France. But that has merely turned more Gibraltar speedboat owners towards the drugs runs.

While the slim"Phantom" powerboats tend to carry cigarettes - usually around 1,000 cartons for a profit of £5,000 a run - the drug-runners opt for inflatables with outboard motors of the type favoured by the Special Boat Squadron.These craft are more stable in the unpredictable Gibraltar Strait and can outrun Gibraltarian and Spanish Guardia Civil vessels.

There have been shoot-outs between the traffickers, using flares, and Guardia Civil helicopters, using real bullets, which buzz the speedboats in an attempt to sink them. A stepson of Gibraltar's Minister for Trade and Industry was killed when a Guardia Civil helicopter hit him with its skids. The helicopter was apparently trying to sink the boat.

The Guardia Civil, on pain of fines from £75 upwards, insist Gibraltar-registered cars carry things the average Spaniard would never dream of carrying - first-aid kits, a spare pair of glasses for bespectacled drivers, and so on. The checks have caused delays of several hours for cars and up to two hours for pedestrians, causing tourists to turn back, hurting the colony's trade.

The move also affects Spanish workers and drivers who cross to fill up their cars with duty-free petrol. Ironically, the Spaniards are buying their own petrol.

Gibraltar imports it from a Spanish refinery close to the border but its "free port"status allows it to retail it tax-free Both the upside and downside of Gibraltar's smuggling is evident on the Spanish side of the border. In the beachfront village of LaAtunara, tuna and clam fishing have taken second place to receiving cigarettes and drugs. When the "Phantom" launches arrive, the goods swiftly disappear into a labyrinth of narrow streets for distribution. Virtually the whole village appears to be involved.

The downside is evident in the nearby rubbish-strewn district of San Bernardo, where drug dealers roam freely and addicts are evident. "Don't come here at night. You'd never get out alive," said Rafael, a taxi-driver from nearby San Roque.

Local residents say the area has the highest incidence of Aids per capita in Europe, from unsterilised needles.

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London