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Strait of Gibraltar: A gateway for drug smugglers

A police helicopter specially equipped to detect drug-laden boats in the Strait of Gibraltar from the air.
A police helicopter specially equipped to detect drug-laden boats in the Strait of Gibraltar from the air. © Anaïs Guérard
By: Sarah MORRIS | Anaïs GUÉRARD

At the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, a stone's throw from the Moroccan coast, the Strait of Gibraltar has become a gateway for the trafficking of drugs between Europe and Africa. The 14-kilometre stretch of water sees a never-ending procession of speedboats loaded with hash and cocaine, despite a police crackdown. Our reporters travelled to the nearby Spanish town of La Linea to meet residents affected by drug trafficking, whether they're participating in it or fighting against it.

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During the 1970s, drug traffickers made the Strait of Gibraltar their base in Europe. Fifty years later, they seem to have won the battle against the police.

They are at the head of an empire that resembles the management of freight transport companies. On the 14 kilometres of sea that separate Spain from Morocco, they ship more than 280 tons of drugs per month. About 80 percent of the hash consumed in Europe passes through here.

The Strait remains uncontrollable

To fight against this illegal trade, the Spanish authorities launched a security plan in 2018. At the beginning of July, the plan was allocated an additional €48.2 million and extended until the end of December 2021. While arrests are on the rise in recent years, all actors in the sector agree that the Strait remains uncontrollable. 

We begin by getting on board Pedro Luis Bardon's helicopter. For more than thirty years, this experienced pilot has been chasing drug-laden boats in the Strait. His acrobatic swoops, as close as possible to the traffickers, even earned him a role in the 2014 film "El Nino" by director Daniel Monzón.

Julio, an 'organiser' with no regrets 

We also meet a man whom we will call Julio. This father in his late 50s is what's known as an "organiser” in the drug trade. After learning the ropes from an early age in cigarette trafficking, he now runs, from the Spanish coast, a cocaine and hash network based in Morocco. For him, everyone has a price. In this region where the unemployment rate reaches 40 percent, easy money has the power to corrupt and radically change lives, including his own and that of his family. That's why he says he does not regret his choice of life, even though it has earned him several years in prison. 

Finally, we follow José Manuel, a young retired police officer who has dedicated his life to the fight against drug trafficking. Even today, in the corridors of the police, he is nicknamed "chief". José Manuel says it was he who convinced notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar not to settle in Morocco, during his ten years undercover there.

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