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Monday, 19 June, 2000, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Customs officers: Tracking the traffickers

A customs officer found 58 dead bodies in the back of a lorry during a routine search at Dover on Monday - a worst-case scenario in a job that is far from stress-free.

Customs officers will never top the polls in a survey of popular professions - their role in life is to sniff out those passing through the nation's ports and airports loaded up with illegal booty.

Charged with searching for the illegal trafficking of drugs, alcohol, endangered species and even people, the officers deal with aggravated and aggressive types on a daily basis.

You could go out for a drink, and sitting at the next table will be four or five people you nicked the day before

Jim Feeney

It's a thankless task, and a job made none the easier by the antipathy with which many of the cornered suspects regard the officials.

Jim Feeney, Dover branch secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, says customs officers are under considerable pressure.

"They get a lot of verbal abuse. Some people try to kick our officers out of the way. You just think it's part of the job, but when it happens on a daily basis, it can wear you down."

About 7,000 lorries pass through the port of Dover each day, and customs officers search about 5% of these.

"If we tried to look at everyone, you'd have a traffic queue back to Marseille. We act on profiling - looking for anything out of the ordinary - and intelligence gathering.

"If you've got a Rolls-Royce pulling up and they say they're miners from Durham, you'd think something didn't smell right."

Changing times

The officers must keep up to date with immigration and drug laws, and are trained how to interview people, make arrests, and identify concealed goods.

"Twenty-five years ago, when I was doing the job, it was just booze and fags.

illegal immigrant
Stowaways are found daily at Dover

"People went off on holiday and, realising that brandy was a third of the price on the continent, would load up the car with a few cases. Searches were very much hit and miss.

"Today, the main problems are bootleggers and drugs, in particular."

Those caught with drugs rarely put up much resistance, Mr Feeney says.

"Your average drug smuggler is pretty compliant. They've been nicked with 20kgs of heroin, they know they're going down, they know it's not worth making it worse for themselves.

"The bootleggers are the problem. A lot of them are unemployed and they're hard nuts.

"Until recently they were getting away with it - 10 or 15 white vans filled with booze and cigarettes would roll off the ferry at a time, and once you'd pulled out the first couple, you couldn't get the rest.

"But now we've got more officers on the ground and they get quite considerable abuse - mostly verbal. We've had one or two officers injured.

"The bootleggers will see a customs officer in the terminal, drop their bag filled with cigarettes and charge like they would on a rugby field."

Quiet drink

Even out of uniform and off-duty, the officers can cop flak.

"Dover is quite a small town and there's a big community of asylum seekers and a big community of bootleggers.

"You could go out for a drink with a friend, and sitting at the next table will be four or five people you nicked the day before - it can get a bit ferocious.

"Some hang around outside Customs and Excise, waiting for off-duty officers to come out. They'll follow them, saying 'I've got your number.'"

forensics experts at scene
The routine search uncovered a grisly find

The officers find illegal immigrants on a daily basis, Mr Feeney says, but rarely - if ever - come across a find as grisly as the 58 dead bodies found on a Dutch-registered lorry on Monday.

"That was the first time we've had anything like this - it was very traumatic for the officers involved.

"But there are some amusing incidents as well.

"There was a chap in a car, in the middle of summer, wearing a full-length overcoat. The officers could see it moving, and a wee head popped out at one point.

"They asked him: 'Have you got anything on your person?' and he said no. They asked why he had a coat on in summer, and he said, 'I feel the cold'. He just wouldn't admit to it.

"They found several parakeets, worth thousands of pounds, under the coat."

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19 Jun 00 | UK
58 dead in port lorry
06 Apr 00 | Crossing continents
A European odyssey
25 Jan 00 | UK
Any port in a storm
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