Gibraltarian waters: “a safe haven for drug traffickers”

The territorial sea encapsulates everything from the baseline to a distance stretching no greater than twelve nautical miles. Coastal states hold sovereignty and jurisdiction over the territorial sea. These rights not only exist on the surface but also extend to the seabed and subsoil, as well as vertical airspace.

The territorial contestation over the Gibraltarian sea has stemmed from when British and Dutch forces captured the peninsula from Spain in 1704. Spain ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain as part of the Treaty of Utrecht, which terminated the war of the Spanish Succession, in 1714. Today, Gibraltar exists as a British overseas territory. The problem lies where Spain refuses to acknowledge the British sovereignty over Gibraltar because of the historic ties the region has with Spain.

Of late, tensions have been further heightened after Spanish security entered the Gibraltarian waters whilst pursuing suspected drug smugglers in August of 2015. A reported coastguard boat and helicopter illegally entered the waters, close to the Gibraltar rock. This case of intrusive mobilities in this territory entangles the sovereign powers of Gibraltar and Spain, blurring the distinct territorial boundaries of both states. 

With the majority of narcotic trafficking taking place in littoral regions, often within territorial waters, combined with the ongoing debate over the sovereignty of Gibraltarian water space, Spanish politicians have claimed ‘the Rock’s waters provide a safe haven for the drug smuggler’. This was exemplified in one 2015 drug trafficking incident, when the smuggler was able to escape after passing into Gibraltarian waters. This is because once Spanish authorities enter Gibraltarian territory without providing notice, the priority of detaining drug traffickers is adverted, stopping Spain from violating the Gibraltarian territorial integrity.

(August 2015- Drug trafficking case, illustrating Spanish boat and helicopter intruding on Gibraltarian waters)

Gibraltar silenced the Spanish politicians’ claims, stating had Spanish enforcement provided an effective signal, the wanted smuggler would have been correctly detained. This highlights that Gibraltar is abiding by Article 108, requiring neighbouring states to co-operate and offer assistance in the suppression of drug trafficking. Additionally, Gibraltar authorities point to a record of willingness to co-operate with Spanish enforcement, claiming that in 2017 alone 2.5 tonnes of cannabis have been seized entering their territory.

The immobilisation of illicit mobilities is inherently difficult at sea due to its very nature; its mobile legal boundaries and its scale and depth. The sea contrasts to the land and air both legally and materially. Mobilities cannot be controlled and governed in the same way, therefore, greater attention must be paid to mobilities at sea that are geographically intervening with spaces.

Despite the legal differences between Gibraltarian and Spanish Plaza disputes, arguably they can be perceived as a colonial heritage; as decolonising territories rather than peoples is the problem. However, whilst Spain continues to contest the UK’s sovereignty over the Gibraltarian territory, rejecting any suggestion that Gibraltar has a right to territorial waters at all, drug trafficking enforcement will fail to be effective. This is alarming when an average of 10 launches come to shore daily, loaded with 1,000-2,000kgs of drugs.

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