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Cocaine haul sparks concern at border force cover levels

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: July 08, 2013

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Fresh concerns have been raised over the lack of Border Force cover in the Westcountry after a massive haul of cocaine was discovered on a yacht.

The Windrose – found to have an estimated £20 million of the class A drug aboard – was bound for Falmouth when it broke down and had to be towed into the Isles of Scilly.

When the yacht was raided on June 17, the Dutch skipper, believed to be 62, fell to his death from the ship's mast.

It is not known whether the Border Force had prior intelligence on the illegal cargo or was acting on a tip-off when the yacht was rescued.

But critics of the Border Force, which has no permanent staff in Cornwall, said it showed the county remained a target for smugglers. Former Customs officer and union representative Martin Menear said: "Cornwall has always been a well-worn route for drug smugglers and what this shows is that it still is. Despite that, there is absolutely no cover in Cornwall at all. The central question is whether this major seizure would have been made if this yacht hadn't broken down."

When it was rescued, the Windrose was reportedly en route from Portugal.

Mr Menear said that was a well-known stopping off point for drug smugglers who had made the transatlantic journey from South America or the Caribbean.

"There needs to be a review because the door is now open to smugglers," Mr Menear added. "It is clear that Cornwall needs some permanent resources to protect its border."

Cornwall's last remaining Border Force post – ironically at Falmouth – closed in March last year.

Falmouth Customs House – which opened in 1814 – had been the last remaining base in the county which once boasted a deterrent presence in Penzance, Fowey, Padstow and the Isles of Scilly.

That followed years of cuts and reorganisation dating back to 2003 when more than 100 Customs officers from the Westcountry were transferred to "mobile teams" to help cover ports and airports in the South East.

Despite repeated assurances that "intelligence-led" operations were more effective than static teams, a permanent team was re-established in Plymouth in 2007. It is responsible for covering Cornwall.

Warnings the system represented a disaster for border security were later vindicated by a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.

It said the removal of local Customs officers, who "had the opportunity to liaise with the community to garner local intelligence", had meant the "flow of information all-but dried up".

St Ives Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George backed calls for a review of cover in Cornwall.

"Smugglers wouldn't be prepared to come in via the front door, and take such a big risk with such a large amount of drugs, if they didn't have intelligence themselves," he said.

"The fact that he was aiming for Falmouth, rather than some small cove, does seem to indicate that the door has been left wide open.

"That should certainly be subject to some serious reflection on the part of the Border Force."

A Border Force spokesman responded: "Given Cornwall's lengthy coastline and large number of small ports and harbours, a static thin blue line of staff based permanently at a single port is not the most effective way to cover the county.

"Border Force uses mobile teams which allow our officers to go to where the risk is greatest on an intelligence-led basis.

"Passengers and crews arriving at Cornwall's ports are checked against watch lists before arrival and we also have a fleet of cutters patrolling the Cornish coast."

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has confirmed it will take charge of an investigation into the death of the yacht skipper.

It is to manage the inquiry into the fatality, but not the illegal substances found on board. Efforts are still under way to contact the family of the man.

IPCC Commissioner Jennifer Izekor said: "The IPCC investigation will focus on the contact between UK Border Force officers and the deceased, and examine the events leading up to his death to ensure that all relevant policies and procedures including adequate risk assessments were followed."

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