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Spain moves ahead with ban on ‘narco launches’

Spain yesterday moved to ban large, powerful rigid-hulled inflatable boats of the type used by criminal gangs to smuggle large shipments of cannabis resin across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Spanish shores.

The prohibition on the so-called “narco launches” is part of wider initiatives to crack down on drug traffickers operating in this region, although it applies across the whole of Spain.

Gibraltar banned this type of vessel in British waters around the Rock in 1995.

“This is about bringing to an end what is a serious problem,” said Isabel Celaá, the Spanish Government’s spokesman, who was addressing reporters yesterday at the end of a cabinet meeting at which the measure was approved.

“These are very fast, inflatable boats,” she added.

“They are the new vehicle of choice for mafias trafficking drugs – and, recently, even people - on our coastline.”

Drug gangs commonly use RHIBs to ferry loads of up to three tonnes of cannabis resin at high speed across the strait, in what has become a lucrative underworld business in which violence is increasingly common.

According to the Spanish Government, between 2012 and 2018, drug trafficking organisations have tried to smuggle over 165 tonnes of cannabis resin using this type of boat.

Spanish law enforcement agencies have seized 81 RHIBs and arrested 282 people in that time.

Concerned about the knock-on social effects of the clandestine trade, Spanish law enforcement agencies have stepped up their efforts to target not just the smugglers themselves, but their logistics and support networks.

The move to prohibit the RHIBs is seen as a key element of that strategy – “it will stop it, or at least make it notably more difficult,” the Spanish Government said - but has taken months to prepare.

The Spanish Government had initially planned to table a Bill for a law to implement the ban but the recent development of RHIBs being used for human trafficking “has added urgency”.

For this reason, the Spanish Government will now implement the ban via a Royal Decree, meaning it will come into effect in a shorter timescale, namely the day after its publication in Spain’s official gazette.

Mrs Celaá added too that large RHIBs posed a threat to maritime safety, given they travelled at very high speeds, often at night.

“This initiative will allow us to penalise the illegal use of these types of vessels which are used for smuggling,” she said.

“Law enforcement agencies will be able to seize these vessels whenever they are detected, even if they are not carrying illicit cargo.”

Under the terms of the Royal Decree, simply being in possession of one of these RHIBs will amount to a smuggling activity and will allow law enforcement agencies to seize the vessel immediately.

The ban focuses on RHIBs over eight metres in length – Gibraltar’s legislation sets this at six – powered by engines of 150 kilowatts or higher.

The decree, however, allows law enforcement agencies to seize vessels “irrespective of size or engine power” if there are “reasonable indications” that they are directly or indirectly involved in smuggling.

The ban envisages some legitimate uses for RHIBs and Spanish authorities will set up a register of these vessels engaged in lawful use, for example by maritime rescue services.

Spain’s move yesterday was welcomed by the Gibraltar Government, which has long sought to strengthen cross-border law enforcement cooperation at sea and had urged Madrid to follow Gibraltar’s lead and prohibit large, powerful RHIBs.

“This is an excellent step in the right direction which we warmly welcome,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the Chronicle.

“It will help security in the Strait of Gibraltar to the benefit of all citizens, as our measures did over two decades ago.”

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