A senior Spanish Foreign Ministry official delivered the 'verbal but tough' protest last week to the British ambassador in Madrid, Sir Robin Fearn, and a visiting Foreign Office deputy under-secretary, Michael Jay, Spanish officials disclosed yesterday
British diplomats confirmed the protest and said Britain had assured the Spaniards that 'we are equally committed to the fight against drug smuggling'. They described co-operation between Spanish anti-narcotics officials and British and Gibraltarian authorities as good but conceded that the existing co-operation might be 'up'.
The protest may have been timed as a bit of nationalistic electioneering by Spain's ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) in the run-up to the European parliamentary vote on 12 June and key regional elections in southern Andalucia, which surrounds Gibraltar, the same day. Spain still lays claim to Gibraltar, a claim that tends to pick up speed at election time.
Independent anti-narcotics sources say there has been a dramatic increase in drugs trafficking across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco this year, with heroin and cocaine beginning to take the place of hashish and tobacco. The drugs do not necessarily go through Gibraltar. They mainly end up along Spain's Costa del Sol or west of Gibraltar on the Costa de la Luz, including the Spanish port of Cadiz.
The Spanish authorities' concern is that thousands of smugglers use Gibraltar as their operational and financial base. The Spaniards believe Gibraltar is being increasingly used as a money-laundering centre for such operations, not only by Gibraltarians but by Spanish, Colombian and other drugs mafias who live in some style near Marbella and the marina at Puerto Banus.
'We made the point that Gibraltar is only part of an area where there is large-scale drug trafficking,' said a British diplomat. 'But it would be wrong to assume that this traffic originates in Gibraltar. We pointed out that Gibraltar police have confiscated one metric tonne of drugs so far this year, most of it hashish.'
The protest apparently cited what it called a lack of co-operation not only from the Gibraltar authorities but from the British Governor of the colony, Sir John Chapple.
There have been several incidents off Gibraltar in the past few years involving Spanish patrol boats and drug traffickers in speedboats. The drug runners have occasionally fired at Spanish helicopters with small arms or flares. British and Gibraltar authorities, for their part, have complained that the Spaniards have violated the colony's waters or endangered innocent people in pursuit of suspected smugglers.