Chases at sea are challenging and dangerous. This week one has made the headlines providing dramatic pictures. Behind the news however are men and women who sometimes put their lives on the line in the quest to tackle criminal activity.
Recently, whilst working on an independent project, I spent a few days with the RGP Marine Section. This included going out on patrol and attending a number of their training sessions at sea.
As a reporter I’ve covered many crime stories in the past. Sitting in the court press bench and going on patrol couldn’t be more different!
The officers welcomed me to the marine base with no conditions – they are confident they carry out their work professionally and happy for it to come under outside scrutiny.
I was to witness more than hard work and commitment and saw co-operation with Spanish authorities that defies a lot of what we have read in the past.
The differences and tension will continue to exist. They will always be difficult circumstances with territorial waters and political issues. But, when it comes to tackling crime both are, and should be, on the same side (even if it means mainly sticking to your side of the waters).
The police interceptor Sir Francis Richards is a powerful vessel. I was taken out on it very early one morning as police attempted to prevent a smuggling vessel from crossing – it had been trying to do so all night.
It’s incredible how quickly it can get cold out at sea. The RGP had provided me with water proofs – but it’s not only about not getting wet. At a high speed water can strike you with force and when it hits your face it can feel like a set of needles trying to break your skin.
Going past Europa Point in choppy seas (and I would say the weather was quite mild) was bumpy and I have to admit daunting at times. I quickly lost all my bearings. At night officers only have the lights from shore and radar to guide them. When engaging in a chase an officer will use a flashlight to signal the way. They are all jobs which require extreme skill.
Like with any profession doing it is harder than it seems and presents a much bigger challenge than anyone on the outside realises.
RGP Superintendent Ian McGrail tells me he is “full of admiration for the men and women who do this job.” This is a vocation. They sign up as part of their duty but this is no job for the faint hearted. Exercising a huge level of self-control, I imagine, is needed when adrenaline during a chase kicks in. Training can prepare them well for difficult scenarios, but when you find yourself in the thick of it not losing control is paramount. A mistake can have catastrophic consequences.
Police officers have rules of engagement, drug smugglers don’t.
As Inspector Damian Cerisola from the RGP’s Marine Section told me: “We do avoid having to engage in unnecessary risks but they [the smugglers] don’t follow that and this can lead to detrimental effects. The most worrying aspect is the loss of life, there’s always that element of risk which we avoid at all costs.”
Stopping a vessel and apprehending its occupants during a chase at sea is not easy. Unless the smugglers surrender or their engine breaks down, intercepting them at high speed can be almost impossible (without risking lives).
I can reveal that in a year (March 2016 – March 2017) there were a total of 114 chases of RHIBs by the RGP. But only six of these led to arrests. The amount of drugs seized during the year is a different story. 155 bales of Cannabis Resin were recovered. That would be an approximate weight of 4,650 kilos – we’re talking here of a street value of more than £23 Million.
In many cases it’s because the cargo has been jettisoned.
None the less the achievement cannot be underestimated. It’s a significant amount but it also begs the question – how much is getting through undetected? The scale of drug trafficking across the Strait of Gibraltar is huge – it’s the main entry point into Europe with Morocco a main supplier of Cannabis, the largest producer of Cannabis Resin according to the UN.
Spanish authorities have the biggest challenge at a number of their beaches and significant seizures have taken place there too but still the problem continues. There are those who feel this is a losing battle for authorities.
Superintendent Ian McGrail says “little Gibraltar is contributing significantly to the international fight.”
HM Customs is also playing a key role.
Earlier this week smugglers conducted dangerous manoeuvres to evade authorities. This is not uncommon, what was different this time round was the fact it was in broad daylight and so close to tankers and other vessels.
Gibraltar and Spanish authorities joined forces for the chase – the kind of co-operation that needs to be above the sovereignty dispute and Brexit negotiations. Despite the political tensions these instances of co-operation are happening more than we can imagine. During my few days with police at sea I witnessed how officers phoned each other. This exchange of information is vital.
How good it would be to see a joint cross border agency to continue fighting this. Stopping drugs from getting onto the streets of Europe is not and should never be an issue of sovereignty.
When we are tucked away in bed at night, or online complaining about how they should have done it differently, officers are out there on the front line facing extreme weather conditions and fighting crime.