Gibraltar chases sea-borne tobacco smugglers

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Tobacco smugglers Miguel and Jaime keep their heads down as they race across the waves on a jet ski with a chasing Gibraltar police patrol boat close behind.

This is the thrilling side of widespread smuggling of cigarettes from the tiny, low-tax British outpost to Spain, and it is one more irritant in their frayed diplomatic relations.

The smuggling is not without risk, but even small rewards are sufficient for youngsters with no hope of a job in recession-hit Spain, where the unemployment rate tops 26 percent.

As Miguel and Jaime approach the safety of the Spanish shore, the Gibraltar police boat tries to cut them off and block them against a jetty.

But the jet ski swerves out of the way, narrowly escaping the police but losing a precious cargo of cigarettes which tumble into the sea.

"They almost killed us," says Miguel, arriving at the beach of La Linea de la Concepcion, a small, poor town in southern Spain that lies just over the border from the tiny British territory of Gibraltar.

"We go at top speed but the jet ski is old and can't get up to 30 knots (35 miles, 55 kilometres per hour)," says his 29-year-old partner in crime, Jaime, his head covered with a bandana like a pirate.

"I managed to get away because the jet ski turns quickly and it's harder for them to manoeuvre," he says, clearly aware of the risks.

"We don't do this to get rich, just to eat."

On each trip they can carry two to five boxes of 500 cigarettes each.

Their boss pays them just 10 euros ($13) a box.

So the moment the police patrol is out of sight, they're off again to make another perilous return trip across the 1,500-metre (one-mile) stretch that separates the two shores.

When they land at home in La Linea, seven men are waiting on the rocks nearby fishing boats and holiday yachts to pick up the merchandise and pack it into cars. It is all done in daylight, in clear sight of everyone passing by.

"I have done this since I was small but only in the past five years with the jet ski," Jaime said.

"If you are born in a farming area you become a farmer, if you are born in a place like this, where there is no work but a bit of smuggling, well, you do that," he said.

The tobacco, mostly made in the European Union, enters Gibraltar legally on large trucks and is distributed to retailers on the self-governing British overseas territory, which measures just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles) and is home to about 30,000 people.

Smugglers buy the cigarettes in large volumes at a price much lower than is charged in Spain, where the government recently increased sales tax to help plug a gaping public deficit.

A carton that costs 20 euros in Gibraltar goes for twice that amount in Spain.

Unemployment, which has reached 35.8 percent in this southern Spanish region of Andalusia, means the profile of a typical smuggler has changed, a Spanish police official said.

"With the crisis, ordinary people are getting involved," he said, adding that seizures had climbed sharply last year at the Spain-Gibraltar border.

Cigarette smuggling is one of the reasons given by Spain for its decision to reinforce border checks in past weeks.

Gibraltar says the stringent checks, which have led to hours-long queues, are actually a reprisal against the territory's decision to build an artificial concrete reef in surrounding waters, blocking Spanish fishing boats.

Cars faced a wait of up to four hours on Thursday, despite London's protests that the border controls are disproportionate.

Most people engaged in small-scale smuggling do so by road, hiding the cigarettes in their boots, belts or behind car wheels.

But there are other ways.

"They even get tobacco out by jumping over the fence that separates the beaches" on either side of the border, the police official said.

Smuggling may cost the Spanish taxman tens of millions of euros every year but it has been going on for centuries in Gibraltar, said 65-year-old historian Tito Vallejo.

Bizet's opera "Carmen" immortalised tobacco smugglers of the 19th century. At that time, "cut tobacco or leaves used to be passed from Gibraltar to Spain by horse across the mountains", said Vallejo.

Tensions between Spain and Gibraltar are nothing new, either.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity in 1713 but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty. London says it will not do so against the wishes of Gibraltarians, who are staunchly pro-British.