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The International Writers Magazine
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James Skinner - the Honorary Consul
‘Taken for a ride’

'There is now a great sign on all Spain’s borders that says, ‘Welcome to Europe. Gateway to heaven’.

‘On Monday the 7th of February, three masked men entered the Spanish Consulate in Berne, Switzerland. The Swiss police were quick in reacting to the alarm and within minutes they had cordoned off the building. Unfortunately, the intruders, unable to carry out their crime, had left before any arrests could be made. Were the thugs terrorists, kidnappers or common burglars? After various theories had been bounced around the common conclusion was that they belonged to a new breed of criminals that were after non other than either passports or visas to be sold later on the black market. Sounded like a similar type of planned operation like that of George Clooney and Brad Pitt in ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ except this time it was for a more sinister booty than that of good old money or jewellery.

The trafficking of illegal human beings across the world is becoming as ruthless and vicious as that of arms and drugs. The USA has been fighting if for decades whilst the European Union is only now realising that they have a serious problem on their hands of illegal immigration mounting in leaps and bounds. Spain has just passed a law, against the wishes of some of its European colleagues to legalise and give residency to approximately 1million humans of various nationalities and races that have been in the country for years. This is certainly a humane move on the part of a civilised government, but in a way it has opened up Pandora’s box. T here is now a great sign on all Spain’s borders that says, ‘Welcome to Europe. Gateway to heaven’.

But back to the Berne incident.
Most of the European states continue to issue warnings to all its citizens when they travel abroad to be aware of pickpockets and other undesirable aliens who may attempt to steal their passports. We are not talking about the usual money grabbers that have existed as long as prostitution, but of real professionals. A passport or a visa can be sold on the black market for anything between two to three thousand Euros. Other than this brief introduction of a real organised criminal racket, as a member of Her Majesty’s consular core, I have had my fare share of criminal cases to handle from kidnapping to rape and from drug trafficking to wife beating. Yes sir, I’ve lived through it all.
First things first.
Consular staff automatically attend to every citizen of the United Kingdom who falls foul of the law in a foreign country. There duty is to ascertain that subject is aware of his or her rights according to the law. This is regardless of the crime that may have been committed. The first step is to obtain permission from either the police or the court to allow access to the defendant. The initial visit is to inform the detainee that he is entitled to a lawyer and a translator and what to expect during the process of the legal procedure. Should the citizen request it his next of kin is informed. From then on, the law takes over. Spain is a civilised country and therefore abides by all human rights issues and is no different to that of the rest of the European Union. So what about specific cases then?

Let’s take the one involving a kidnapping that started down in Portugal and ended up here in Vigo. A crime that really was not what it seemed. Apparently two partners in a travel agency business had had a dispute over money. Not uncommon. Trouble was that one of them lived over in America. So, when he travelled to the continent with his wife and refused to pay up, the partner in Europe decided to hold ‘the wife’ as a sort of guarantee until he did. Sounds rather cockeyed but the whole affair took place first of all down in Lisbon with a subsequent joy ride all the way up to Northern Spain. The whole party stopped off for meals and a bit of sightseeing on the way. The cops on both sides of the border kept a close watch similar to that of the movie Thelma and Louise. Trouble is that when they finally nabbed them, they did not buy the touring bit and booked them anyway. As I said previously, my role was to make sure that they were within their rights and then let the lawyers get on with the case.

Then there was the case of a drug peddler who was caught with about six kilos of cocaine, three mobile phones and half a dozen credit cards. Got a call from my friends at the police station to tell me that a Brit had been caught ‘wandering around’ Vigo with a rucksack over his shoulder and appeared to be lost. They tried at first to help him but when asked for identification, out popped all the goodies mentioned earlier. This was an obvious case of an amateur courier out for a ‘bit of cash’ on the side to pay for his holiday. A holiday that will cost him at least seven years in the nick!

The best episode yet was when I taken for a ride, or almost.
Once again, I get a call from the police station to say that a Brit had been arrested for possession of a whole bunch of false credit cards. He and his partner, not British, had been swindling other Brits throughout Spain for some time. The Spanish cops had trailed Butch and Sundance from Benidorm to Seville to Cuenca and finally up to this neck of the woods. Green Galicia! When I turned up at the police station to carry out my usual chores, two guards accompanied me to his cell but before I entered, one of them said, ‘his only document is a UK driving licence. Says he’s lost his passport.’
Now, remember what I said earlier on about the loss of documents and how serious it was if it fell into the hands of thugs. Like the innocent sod that I am, my first thoughts were to assist this felonious creature in his identification. Picture the following scenario.
‘Morning, I’m the British Consul.’ I hand him the full package of information on his rights. ‘Understand that you lost your passport. Do you remember where or when?’
Whilst he sat there in front of me, silent as a doormat I began to look at the only ID he had on him, his driving licence.
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘I see you live in Islington. I know it well. I lived there myself a few years ago.’ You should have seen the guy’s face.
He then said, with a perfect Cockney accent, ‘Got no relatives back home. I don’t need no help!’
I pursed my lips and continued, ‘did you by chance live anywhere near the White Heart, near Percy St.? Good Bass!’ he kept silent. ‘Oh well. Never mind!’

I got up, bid farewell and left. I had done my duty. I told the cops that he sounded like a genuine Londoner and that I would get back to them with confirmation of his passport details. It was at this moment that another cop came into the room and said to me, ‘don’t worry Mr. Consul, Interpol have just identified him. He’s an Algerian wanted all over Spain. He’s travelling with forged ID’s.’
Nevertheless it taught me a lesson. Don’t trust anyone in this sodding world. Not even somebody from Islington!
© James Skinner. February 10th 2005.

Congrats and good luck to James for his new weekly column in the Vigo Newspaper.
Man Overboard
James Skinner Diplomatic Diaries Pt 3

Crisis Management
James Skinner in Vigo Pt 2

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