Can new metal barriers seal off Spain’s river of drugs?

Almost half of all hashish coming into Spain enters via the Guadarranque river, in Cádiz

Patricia Ortega Dolz
A shipment of hashish seized in southern Spain.
A shipment of hashish seized in southern Spain.Tax Agency

The Guadarranque river runs for just 43 kilometers from its source up in the wooded hills of the Alconorcales Natural Park down into the Bay of Algeciras in Cádiz province. Drug traffickers have used it for decades, and it is still the route along which around half of all hashish brought into Spain travels. This is also where the police carry out nearly a fifth of all drug operations.

So far, it has proved impossible to put an end to the coming and going of the speedboats that load and unload their bundles of hashish, often in front of the luxury homes that line the sea front by the river’s estuary, despite greater numbers of police and increased resources.

But it now appears the authorities are determined to take definitive action. EL PAÍS has seen details of a €1 million scheme that aims to use a series of metal barriers to slow traffic down on the river.

The plan involves driving metal posts into the riverbed, about 2.2 meters apart from each other

High-speed chases, the constant buzz of outboard engines, and the sight of men in diving suits and balaclavas piloting the inflatable boats are a part of daily life along the lower reaches of the Guadarranque.

Back in the 1990s, the police attempted to crack down on the drug traffickers’ activities, raiding garages and mooring sites in the back gardens of the houses built along the river, which were used for storing fuel and spare parts for the speedboats. These properties had become highly sought after by drug traffickers, who were prepared to pay up to €6,000 a month in rent.

A floating barrage was placed around the entrance to the river, held together by chains with a system of gates to allow fishing vessels through. It lasted a little over a year: the two local councils of Los Barrios and San Roque, under pressure from fishermen, stopped maintaining the barrage, and it was soon dismantled and left to drift on the tide. All that remains of the plan today is a small lookout post.

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The new plan now underway, which is due for completion in the summer of 2016, involves driving metal posts into the riverbed, about 2.2 meters apart, to prevent the inflatable boats, which typically have a beam of around three meters, from getting through.

In August, Spain’s secretary of state for security, Francisco Martínez, announced a plan whose official goal was to use “physical barriers required to prevent the passage of speedboats along the river, as well as other auxiliary measures. Any measures will comply with existing legislation applying to river, port and coastal traffic.”

The latest bid to halt the drug traffickers aims to be a “permanent solution” that uses “metal elements along the lines of sheet piling, running parallel and equidistant to each other along the width of the river and facing upstream, creating a staggered pattern dug into the riverbed.”

A surveillance helicopter flies out of Los Barrios, near Algeciras, several times a day in search of drug-laden boats.
A surveillance helicopter flies out of Los Barrios, near Algeciras, several times a day in search of drug-laden boats.Juan Carlos Toro

Supposedly, “taking into account the right distance between the elements, the space that remains between any two prevents the passage of the boats and other means used for illegal activities.” In any event, “the exact location of the barrier along the course of the river and the height of the metal elements, as well as their number and the distance between them, will be determined on the basis of geothermic results and other tests” that are now purportedly being carried out.

According to the preliminary survey of the project, the main advantage of this proposal is that the impact on the river – including such elements as water flow speed, clogging, and obstructions by floating elements – will be limited on account of the reduced width of the sheet piling. The system is also described as “simple and low maintenance.”

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