Sunday 31 January 2010

A day on pirate bay

As I stand talking to the Guardia Civil officer at the port of Los Cristianos, a Peter Pan ship sharks up behind his patrol boat, silently, laden with pale Britons. But the vessels fail to collide: here, on Tenerife's southernmost shore, mass tourism thrives next to state-of-the-art border surveillance.

"The steak sandwich... it's so tender, you can't have one from the butcher like this," muses an elderly British woman, praising her and her husband's favourite lunchspot at the beachfront. "And with the camareros, we've learnt all the local sayings and everything." "But they're not from here, they're from the peninsula," retorts her interlocutor, a Teutonic gentleman on the table across. "Northern Spain... where is it? Andalusia? Galicia?" A Senegalese youngster appears, loaded with cheap sunglasses and sparkling bracelets that he tries to peddle, half-heartedly. The English husband waves him off. "Over there, they serve solomillo this thick, on a plate heated up to 700 degrees," his wife continues, lost in remembrance of steaks past. "It's right there, on the plaza, next to the Chinese restaurant. You can't miss it."

Most of the Senegalese working the seaside promenade probably arrived here by cayuco - a Spanish term applied to large Senegalese fishing vessels or gaal - back in the day. It's hard to be sure, since they're not keen to discuss it. They gather in little cliques, then branch out to different tables, then gather again. No one seems to buy a thing off them. More business - in the shape of bare-bellied Britons - streams into the Asian-run shops promising Bloody Hell Offers on Ciggies. Bulk buy cheap price: Lambert and Butler, Benson and Hedges, Mayfair, Royals, Drum. Nestling next to the Peter Pan, the Jolly Roger ship also lures its fair share of visitors. Pirates still abound at this port - Spain's second busiest for passenger traffic, according to the customs police viewing the spectacle from the pier.

Out there, past the sunglass vendors and pirate ships, the Guardia Civil waits for cayucos to arrive. Their patrol boat is specially furnished for the purpose of tracking down near-capsizing fishing vessels: it's manned 24 hours a day, ready to set out whenever the signal comes through. These days, nothing. The radars and thermal cameras of Spain's maritime borders surveillance system - SIVE - only pick up commercial vessels, patrol boats, large waves, sailing ships. Nothing more.

But the patrolling, coordinated through an intricate web of control centres stretching from Dakar to Warsaw, continues unabated. The centres and agencies are tied together in an ever-tighter mesh encompassing Spain's Guardia Civil, the EU's Frontex border agency, Spain's sea rescue service, the Armada, the Red Cross, and police forces and gendarmeries from a dozen or more European and African countries. In their wake follow a flurry of obscure acronyms and cryptic labels - CCRC, CECON, HERA, SEA HORSE, NOBLE CENTINELA, ALFA-INDIA - referring to transnational border control centres and surveillance projects that fan ever further out from European territory. But this need not bother the British and German carnivores ashore, nor the ferry passengers lounging between the patrol boat and an emergencies-equipped Red Cross trailer out at the pier.

"The problem's being cut at the root," says the Guardia Civil official. "Here we can't contain the migration flows - it has to be over there." He means the Gambia, where he was recently on mission, and neighburing Senegal: my next stops on this fieldwork trip.


  1. hey man!
    Nice to hear from you, specially from your part of the world
    It seems that no matter where you look you will always find people trying to cross some border, a physical border or mental.
    I will keep on reading your stories.
    I wish I could make some sense of mine but sometimes I can't, it is so blurry and confusing!!!
    muchos besos

  2. an interesting start. the sight of "nothing" raises many questions...the "root" of the "problem".. so many definitions, so many angles. I look forward to your next