HMS Chapple: At the forefront of the fight against smugglers

THE drug trade in the Campo gained international attention this month after Spain’s United Police Union (SUP) warned the region is in danger of becoming the ‘Colombia of Spain’.

It came after 20 masked thugs stormed a hospital in La Linea and freed a suspected drug trafficker from under the watchful eye of the police.

“There’s clearly a lack of security in La Linea and it’s down to the fact that we don’t have sufficient personnel or resources to tackle drug traffickers,” a spokesman said.

HMS CHAPPLE: At the forefront of the fight against smugglers

“The increasingly high-profile drug trafficking lies at the root of the problem.

“This is a city in the hands of the lawless and we can’t allow that.”

La Linea is only a small town, with a population of just over 63,000 people.

This conservative estimate suggests that just under 5% of the town’s population earn their income directly from illicit drugs.

“They have thrown out whatever shame they had,” a former drug trafficker said.

“These are mafias that don’t care about killing or being killed.”

Despite their best efforts – and recent successes – the Spanish police are still struggling to keep up with organised crime.

“We are seeing an average of 10 launches come in daily loaded with 1,000 or 2,000 kilos of drugs,” police admitted.

Still, the Strait of Gibraltar must be a relatively safe place, right?

After all, it is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and patrolled by a host of international powers, including the United Kingdom, Spain and the United States.

On arrival at the HM Naval Base, our five shipmates entertained us with their best horror stories from patrolling the high seas. It was an initiation like no other.

“It’s pretty common in a chase to come up alongside a smuggler’s boat, so close you could reach out and grab them… or vice versa,” the Skipper says ominously.

“I was out several weeks ago chasing a RHIB packed with cannabis resin when we heard two shots fire in our direction,” interjects another of the police, “It can get dangerous out there.”

I began to understand the importance of the lengthy waiver forms we had been forced to sign.

We soon headed out on one of the RGP’s speedboats, the HMS John Chapple.

Fitted with four Yamaha engines and with the ability to reach 60 knots, it is a vessel that should strike fear into the heart of even the most foolhardy smuggler.

The crew of five will work on a six days on four days off pattern to ensure they are alert should a chase ensue.

During the six days the group will work a mixture of early mornings, evenings and nights.

But perhaps worryingly, Gibraltar only has one boat patrolling for smugglers at any given time, while certain high-tech apps can allow their boat to be tracked on any mobile phone or tablet – only making it easier for traffickers to time their runs.

“There is no real pattern for heightened smuggling activity, other than the number of RHIB’s coming across increases in the time period directly after a cannabis harvest in Morocco,” says one of the crew.

“Sometimes we will have a week where we will have absolutely nothing then one night there will be nine or ten boats coming through our waters.

“It could be at 4pm or 4am, they will try at all hours of the day.

“This is why we always have a boat out, we’re always prepared.”

The Captain explains that the crew have to deal with several types of illicit smuggling in the Straits.

The majority of the RHIB’s passing through Gibraltarian waters are those attempting to bring hashish from Morocco into Spain.

SEIZED: Drugs in Upper Town, Gibraltar

The Spanish Interior Ministry has estimated that it seized 70% of all hashish exported from Morocco to Europe in 2017.

For a successful journey from Morocco to Spain, a smuggler could expect to earn £50,000.

The smugglers will typically try to land with their expensive cargo on unattended beaches in the Campo, but our crew are often called to intercept them as the criminals will also pass through Gibraltarian waters.

The RGP’s Marine Section will also attempt to catch smugglers operating from South America, usually trying to bring cocaine into Europe.

Lastly, they will assist HM Customs in catching tobacco runners, who routinely use small, inflatable Zodiac boats to transport cigarettes across the border into Spain, where they can be sold for over double the price.

It becomes evident shortly after leaving shore that the men have no qualms about risking their lives to protect the Rock.

“This boat is like our second family,” the young Gibraltarian spotter says casting his eyes around the boat, “we depend on one another and our absolute priority is ensuring the safety of each of the crew when we’re out on patrol.

“Even the Skipper – and he is an Arsenal fan,” he jokes.

The job is certainly not for the faint hearted.

Within a matter of minutes of setting off, the RHIB is corkscrewing through the choppy Mediterranean at a speed of forty knots.

When the Skipper changes the direction the boat turns at a stomach churning 90 degrees, rendering you below the water level for a few terrifying moments.

We patrol on both the east and west of the Rock, relying on a combination of state-of-the-art radar technology and the sharp vision of the crew to look for smugglers.

The first couple of hours at sea are relatively quiet and a call around midnight explains the lack of activity.

The Guardia Civil in La Linea has conducted a series of high-profile raids, making a large number of arrests.

“The smuggling gangs have so many on their pay-book in these towns whenever there is a lot of police activity they will call over to Morocco and tell the boats not to come tonight,” explains one of the crew.

“As the Spanish police are out in force tonight and they have cameras trained on the coast not even the most desperate smuggler would attempt to land this evening.”

Slightly disappointed that an exhilarating chase could be off the cards, I consoled myself with the news that thanks to the action of the Spanish police, illegal contraband would not be making its way to the Campo that evening at least.

WORKING TOGETHER: The RGP Marine Section will liaise with their Spanish counterparts

My interest turned to the men’s relationship with their Spanish counterparts.

“We are trying to do the same thing at the end of the day,” says the Skipper.

“If we chase a boat and it goes into Spanish waters we will communicate with our Spanish colleagues and if they pick them up it’s great.

“It depends on the individual, not all of them are so friendly but at the end of the day if we catch someone or they do, it is more drugs that will not be passing through the Campo and potentially into Gibraltar.”

The men explained however, that if they could change one law, it would be to give them the power to chase suspected criminals into international waters.

They hoped that a more open relationship between Spain and Gibraltar could lead to a relaxing of this law.

I ask the men what their families make of their unusual job.

“They are concerned but they know we are doing an important job,” shrugs one of the men.

“I only fear when I go across the border into Spain.

“In Gibraltar I am in the unique position that I might go out for dinner with my missus and be sat next to someone I nicked the week before.

“No-one will bother me here despite that because it is such a small community.

“However, it is completely different say when I go across to do my shopping.

“The smugglers know who we are, and I’m pretty sure they would have different photos of our crew as well.

“If I nick someone’s brother for example and word gets out it was me, I would be a little cautious crossing over.”

Just as the night appears that it will be an uneventful one, we identify a tobacco spotter at Sandy Bay.

A spotter will watch out for the police boat and then call ahead to those shipping the drug into Spain to let them know when is best to make the run.

They can make up to £1,000 a day.

Sure enough, outside a dingy nearby carpark, a group of young men seem to be waiting on the beach.

“When they get the call through that the coast is clear these men will load up their Zodiacs with tobacco and run it over to La Linea,” says one of the crew.

“They can do it in five minutes or so, so its important we disrupt them as soon as possible.”

Belted in once more, we career close to where the men are loitering.

GIBRALTAR: Under threat from the drugs trade in the Campo

The men disperse and the police seem chuffed to have broken up what clearly looked like a major tobacco smuggling operation.

“See, you can be having the quietest night and all of a sudden you have to go from 0 to 100,” says the Skipper.

“Just last night one of our crews picked up a bloke trying to swim from Gibraltar into Spain with the world’s biggest wet bag full of tobacco, it is relentless.”

As the night draws to a close, despite not intercepting any hashish heading for the Campo, the men are pleased to have kept the tobacco smugglers at bay for now.

Another crew will relieve them of their duties at 6am, taking on the responsibility for protecting the Rock from the pervasive drug smuggling on the Med.

As we return to the HM Naval Base, the Skipper makes an apt remark.

“They are just getting more and more desperate and have so much money,” he says, referring to the hashish gangs.

“And I’m not getting any younger,” he says laughing.

“More and more boats seem to be coming across and people are worse off in the Campo, they are more willing to do things they wouldn’t have previously for money.

“They aren’t bad people and I do sympathise but the situation is on the verge of tipping out of control there.”

The next day, Spain’s interior minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, pledged to send more police to the Campo and promised the area will ‘not be dominated by narcos’.

However with the sheer scale of the criminal activity at play, immediate action is needed.

“It is too big an enemy; it’s like a seven-headed serpent, because no matter how often you cut one off, new ones grow,” complains Juan Franco, the Mayor of La Linea.

He laments that the Spanish government has ‘abandoned’ La Linea, providing few job opportunities for locals who have then made tobacco and drug smuggling their source of income.

For the crew of the HMS John Chapple they cannot influence socioeconomic conditions in La Linea.

However, these everyday Gibraltarian heroes will still be out on patrol tonight, tomorrow and forever more, dealing with its effects.

We all owe them a big thanks – even if the Skipper is an Arsenal fan.