Nothing to declare

Inside the dangerous but profitable world of smuggling drugs, watches and butter


Smugglers are international: the Englishman, the Belgian, the Siamese, and the man from Andorra, high in the Pyrenees. Of course, they never meet. But they are partners in the trade which for every pound invested, pays the biggest profits of them all. They operate with sampans, with mules, with fast cars, and by plane. They smuggle anything from bullion to butter, from diamonds to opium.

To the smuggler it doesn’t matter what he carries; only the profit counts. And the profits are immense. For every year, according to Interpol – the international police organization – the smugglers of the world swindle the customs with such rich loads as: £300 million of gold, £100 million of drugs and narcotics, £30 million of diamonds, and £70 million of such highly taxed goods as cars, radios, and perfume.

Britain, as befits a nation of traders, is an active smuggling centre. The illegal import of watches alone tells the story. In 1963, the Customs seized watches valued at £200,000. But for every watch they confiscated, it is reckoned ten more got through. So, about £2,000,000 of watches were smuggled into Britain in one year. How?

Of the 20,000 people who arrive in Britain every day, most come by air. They are people like the businessman, the housewife, the holiday-tripper. They sit in the arrival lounge of London Airport awaiting their summons to the Customs. To the Customs officer this collection of passengers is fairly typical. The woman says she has nothing to declare, but in fact she has. For she fails to mention the new skirt bought in Paris for herself and the purse brought back as a present. The Customs man decides that this is a case of genuine misunderstanding, needing no more than a warning. The young man, the holiday-tripper, is next. Slung casually over his shoulder is an expensive new camera. He says he bought it last week just before leaving London. But he cannot produce a receipt. So he is taken away to see a senior officer who will find out if the camera was really bought in Britain, or whether it was another amateur attempt at smuggling – an activity many travellers consider fair sport, without realizing it is also a dangerous one. Coming to the businessman, the Customs officer decides to examine his suitcases carefully. He feels for hidden compartments in the lid and sides. Next he searches the contents. A first batch of watches is found between scooped-out hairbrushes. But the bigger haul comes from the tin of talcum. For, packed under a top layer of powder, are two dozen watches – a load which would earn a smuggler around £250.

The main watch smuggling routes from Switzerland into Britain are through Belgium and across France. To make watch smuggling profitable, and at the same time to keep the risks down, the professional smugglers try to bring in very big loads at a time.

One favoured way is to hide them in cars with specially built secret compartments. The holidaymakers’ car route from the Continent – the Cross-Channel ferries arriving at Dover – is used by the professional smugglers, hoping to pass undetected among the tourist cars. World in Action showed a special reconstruction of such an attempt being made:

A Customs man asks what there is to declare. The driver produces the normal 200 duty-free cigarettes. His brief-case yields no contraband. Nor does his luggage, brought out from the car. But the Customs man, having been told by the driver that he had come from Paris, spots yesterday’s date on a Swiss hotel bill. He calls over a colleague and a search of the car begins. First the boot, inch by inch, till a secret compartment containing boxes of watches is discovered. Then on to an inspection pit for a thorough look at the underside. The exhaust silencer and the petrol tank are tapped to make sure they are not dummies, too. Mirror and torch are used to look inside the wings to examine the upper side of the chassis. Then inside the car another secret compartment is uncovered. Here are 100 more watches, making a total haul of 250, worth around £4,000. Finally the driver himself is taken to a private office and searched.

Like all confiscated goods, the watches eventually find their way to a warehouse in London’s dockland. The door is number 007, but it belongs to the Queen’s Warehouse, not to James Bond. Here there are rooms crammed with thousands of pounds worth of contraband: cigars, cigarettes and leaf tobacco, wines and spirits, and, of course, watches. All the goods find their way on to the market in the end, for when the Warehouse is full the Customs auction them off to reputable dealers.

For nearly seven centuries the British have been building traditions in smuggling as eccentric as most of the nation’s other cherished traditions. Smuggling has been with us since 1275 when Edward the First first levied Customs Duty on the export of wool. As the levies increased in number the smuggler came into his own, mainly running brandy and wine from France at a handsome profit, and not hesitating to fight it out with the British Customs man if necessary. And because he supplied black market liquor at cheap prices the smuggler was popularly regarded as a hero not a criminal-an attitude which is still widespread.

In Britain today the Customs men no longer have to learn how to shoot it out with the smugglers. Instead they are scientifically taught such things as the design of ships, and where and how to search them. They are taught how to recognize all the apparatus of opium smoking, the pipe, the lamp, and the hard wooden pillow used by the addict. They are shown how cigarette lighters can be smuggled in body belts, how watches can be hidden away in hollowed-out books and shoes.

Britain, of course, has no monopoly on smuggling. It is a truly international racket. Indeed the smallest state would go bankrupt if it were not for smuggling. Sitting astride the snow-covered Pyrenees between France and Spain is Andorra, only 18 miles long and 12 miles wide. It has no income tax and even the fountains in the streets supply hot water, free. And it is a smuggler’s haven. For on either side are countries with high taxes on luxury goods. The shops of Andorra are stacked with cheap tax-free whisky, tax-free razors, tax-free lighters. But official frontier posts are closely watched and every car is searched.

There are, however, other routes into Spain. Late in January, 1964 World in Action cameras joined a smuggling expedition.

First we watched as goods, bought openly in Andorra’s tax-free shops, were assembled and stowed in packing cases. Cameras, sparking plugs for cars, cosmetics, and long-playing records-all high-tax luxuries in Spain today. From Andorra La Vella, the capital of the pocket republic, the packed crates were driven up the icy roads to a mountain village to be handed over to tough mountain men for the crossing over the 10,000 feet high Pyrenees. This particular load was worth £300 in Andorra. Its price just a few hard miles away over the mountains: £630 – more than double.

No one turned out to see our mule-train set off: for convoys such as this are a regular happening. And to Andorrans smuggling is just another way of earning a living. At the summit, the unposted frontier, there was a moment’s rest before the down-hill slither to our rendezvous on a Spanish mountain road, where the contact man from Barcelona was due to meet us. When he did arrive, he was at first, and not unnaturally, surprised and worried to find a camera team with the Andorrans. But the leader of the smugglers managed to reassure him. So we recorded the loading of the goods into the Spaniard’s van – though he prudently insisted that he cover up his number plates!

Without doubt the most loathsome though certainly the most profitable form of smuggling is the squalid traffic in drugs. In Far Eastern ports, such as Hong Kong, the Customs Officer’s main task is to try to stop this traffic, mainly in opium. A constant check is kept on all junks putting into port. But much of the opium still gets through. Some of it is smoked locally, sending its addicts into stupefied sleep. The remainder filters along the Dope Route to the West. Starting in far-off places like Siam (Thailand) further supplies are fed in from the poppy fields of Turkey. And thus to France where the stuff is processed into heroin and morphine, and then smuggled across the Atlantic to the main customers – the dope addicts of America.

Recent laws in America have made dope-peddling a crime almost as serious as murder. But many still consider the risks worth while. According to Interpol, an ounce of opium which is worth ten shillings in, say, Hong Kong or Turkey is worth £300 by the time it is refined in Europe, and no less than £1,500 an ounce to the drug addicts in New York.

The dope growers and exporters do not want payment in money. They prefer gold. So the other main smuggling route runs West to East. Gold flows out from America to France. Some is filtered to Turkey to pay for opium. But the main stream flows eastward via India to South-East Asia.

Certainly the oddest form of contraband in the world today is smuggled within an hour’s flight of any British airport. On the frontier, between Holland and Belgium is the small town of Kieldrecht, centre of a thriving industry for smuggling, of all things, butter.

One side of Kieldrecht is in Holland; and here butter costs sixty-four francs, fifty centimes a kilo – that’s 4/6 a pound. A few yards away is the Belgian frontier post. Here Customs Guards check all cars to see if they are carrying butter, for on the Belgian side of the border butter is heavily taxed and costs no francs a kilo-that’s 7/- a pound – half-a-crown more. Not that many housewives of Belgian Kieldrecht buy it at that price; they have only to walk around the corner, down a side-street where there is no customs post, and stroll into Dutch Kieldrecht to buy cheap butter.

But most Belgians don’t live near the frontier. So smugglers run van-loads of butter from Holland into the interior of Belgium, reckoning to make anything up to £100 for a two-hour drive. Once the van is loaded, as a World in Action reconstruction showed, the smuggler rigs an improvised but effective self-defence system against Customs patrol cars. Boxes are filled with nails soldered together in pairs in criss-cross fashion so that when they fall to the ground hundreds of sharp points stick upwards to puncture the tyres of the pursuing car. The boxes are set, ready to be tugged open by a piece of twine.

At nightfall, the vanload of butter is driven out of the garage, passing along quiet country lanes to cross the frontier into Belgium at one of the many places where there are no custom posts. The smuggler knows that even when well inside Belgium he cannot count himself safe from Customs cars on patrol. Such patrols in 1963 arrested 85 smugglers, confiscated 221 cars and seized half a million pounds of butter. Sometimes the smuggler wins. But, after all, it’s only butter. The pity is that too often it is the dope smuggler, quite apart from the gold smuggler, or the watch smuggler, who wins in this the most profitable business on earth.

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