From: Gibralter Chronicle
On Green Lane one recent weekday morning, police officers from the Neighbourhood Policing Unit [NPU] surprised two Spanish nationals as they stashed cigarettes into the body work of their car. They had parked behind the old Casino for privacy while they removed the door panels on their car. The two were in the process of hiding the packets of cigarettes when the officers swooped in. Judging by the amount of litter around them, others had done the same many times over.
In the north end of town, police officers patrolled Laguna and Glacis estates on foot, keeping an eye on the matuteras and moving them on if they blocked pavements or caused a nuisance.
The officers worked their way across the estates, talking to shop attendants and customers, looking in the doorways where men and women alike often undress to hide tobacco about their person.
This was the second week of Operation Kalia, an ongoing initiative by the NPU.
“We’re responding to what people in the community are telling us,” said Inspector William Gomez, one of the two senior officers who run the unit.
“What we’re targeting is the antisocial behaviour associated with the tobacco trade.”
The first fortnight has focused primarily on the north district, but the operation is being conducted by Neighbourhood Policing Teams across the Rock.
The police operation is in response to a mounting groundswell of opinion that is sharply critical of the impact of the tobacco trade, particularly in housing estates.
Data about cigarette sales is kept confidential, but there is little doubt that the volume has grown sharply in recent years.
The evidence is clear to see around the Rock.
This is a legitimate business that contributes significant sums of money to the public purse and generates activity in other areas of the economy.
It is also a lifeline for many people in cash-strapped neighbouring Spanish town crippled by unemployment.
But the business has a downside too. Alongside those eking a living from small-scale smuggling are organised gangs attracted by lucrative profits.
In the housing estates in particular, but also in other areas of Gibraltar, the ugly side of the tobacco business is on show for all to see.
“The noise of motorcycles is constant,” said one elderly person who lives next to a tobacco shop. They get half naked to hide the cigarettes and then leave litter everywhere.”
“I don’t mind people trying to make a living, but it’s affecting me directly.”
This was not a lone voice. Angry about the impact of the cigarette trade, some local residents are even grouping together to launch a petition.
This problem has been building for years and requires a long-term solution. In the interim, the RGP is left to deal with the fallout.
Policing the anti-social behaviour associated with the cigarette business is a constant, frustrating battle, one that imposes a heavy drain on resources.
The sheer volume of people coming into Gibraltar to buy cigarettes means that a high-profile police presence in one area simply pushes them into another.
On the streets, police officers try to ensure that retailers comply with the terms of the licence. Where they do not, the RGP cracks down.
In one recent case, a shop attendant was caught selling a customer a commercial quantity of cigarettes. Both ran foul of the law.
The officers have a good rapport with those who run the shops, urging them to ensure their customers minimise their impact on the community. Even the customers are beginning to understand that unless they comply with the rules, the police will remain on their backs.
“The message is getting through to them,” said Inspector Edgar Lopez.
Arrests, in fact, are few and far between. Most of the people buying cigarettes know the law and stay within the legal limits.
Mostly it is about simple things like noise pollution, vehicles blocking pavements and roads, small things that cause a nuisance to people going about their daily business.
For the RGP neighbourhood teams, it is a fine line to tread.
“It’s a balance between allowing daily trade within the law, while keeping the neighbours happy,” Inspector Lopez said.