Pateras, cayucos and Cross-border Mafias in Africa: Profiting from the Atlantic Routes to the Canary Islands (ARI)

Pateras, cayucos and Cross-border Mafias in Africa: Profiting from the Atlantic Routes to the Canary Islands (ARI)

Theme: This ARI describes the criminal business of profiting from the Atlantic routes of illegal immigration to the Canary Islands.

Summary: In the last few years, illegal emigration from Sub–Saharan Africa to the Canary Islands has soared. The constant and sometimes mass departure of pateras (small boats) and cayucos (much larger boats) are an iceberg, only the tip of which arrives to the Canary Islands and makes the news headlines every day. This ARI describes the migratory flow and the organised criminal groups which profit it, adding criminal conduct to the humanitarian risk which they are already fomenting. The analysis includes an initial overview of the figures underlying the business of seafaring migration, like the more than €100,000 which each cayuco generates and the 75 million euros a year moved by illegal trafficking rings, as well as the added costs for the State in terms of diplomatic and police measures aimed at preventing or mitigating this kind of illegal immigration.

Analysis: Spain is the port of entry into the ‘European dream’ which most North– and Sub–Saharan African emigrants share. The inequality of opportunities on the different shores of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean boosts the flow of migrants and causes the normal migratory channels to overflow. The insufficiency of the regular routes has generated alternative migratory routes which channel and foment emigration towards the coasts that separate the illegal emigrants from their dreams. Most of those who opt for these illegal routes arrive, after making long and difficult journeys over land which often last for months, to some departure point on the coast of Guinea Conakry, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia or the Western Sahara, to board pateras (small boats) and cayucos (much larger boats) which will take them to the Canary Islands, the southern frontier of Europe.

Despite the media furore it creates, there is no doubt that, quantitatively speaking, illegal immigration arriving by sea is not the immigration that contributes most to the phenomenon in Spain. Considering the Atlantic routes, only 8% of illegal entries are made by sea. However, qualitatively it is hugely important because of the humanitarian risk to those who choose this method of illegal immigration and because the large number of potential emigrants in Sub–Saharan Africa has generated a black market which is artificially boosted by supply and demand. At a humanitarian level, it is significant because of the human drama of thousands of immigrants from more than 60 countries worldwide, most notably Senegal (25.60%), The Gambia (16.96%) and Morocco (10.12%), and also including Mali, Guinea Bissau and the Republic of Guinea (close to 9%), who risk their lives trying to negotiate the Atlantic Ocean to the Canary Islands in traditional fishing boats in utterly inhuman conditions and running the real risk of losing their lives in the process.

As regards the exploitation involved, emigrants must also assume, apart from the family and social costs, disproportionate financial costs in ‘tickets of passage’ which make groups of organised criminals rich, either in full connivance with local authorities or at least taking advantage as they turn a blind eye. According to the Spanish Supreme Court Ruling nr 582/2007, groups that organise the crossings can now be considered to belong to organised criminal gangs. However, it is also a source of concern that this criminality which focuses on illegally introducing immigrants into Spain or trafficking with human beings when they are introduced against their will may be associated with other forms of cross–border crime. The possible association between various forms of crime makes illegal immigration by sea no longer solely a security and sea–rescue issue but also a matter of internal security to the extent that the routes opened for clandestine migration are also used to introduce value–added products derived from drug–trafficking, smuggling or pirated goods (see Antonio L. Mazzitelli, ‘The Challenges of Drugs, Organised Crime and Terrorism in West and Central Africa’, ARI nr 43/2006, Elcano Royal Institute) and it should not be ruled out that these same routes could one day be used by terrorist elements from training camps in the Sahel region. In fact, significantly, on the same southern Atlantic routes for illegal immigration towards the Canaries and Europe more than 30,000 kilograms of cocaine were seized in 2006, no less than 68% of the total seized that year.

The emergence of this phenomenon has fostered new forms of diplomatic and economic cooperation between the EU and Africa to advance in the control of migratory flows, but it has also required new procedures to be tested which allow more effective cooperation in policing. In this regard, it should not be forgotten that these clandestine migrations breach the security of the EU’s outer borders and that Spain is responsible for controlling them. Because of this, in October 2006, the Spanish government created the Canary Islands Regional Coordination Centre (Centro de Coordinación Regional de Canarias)to facilitate the coordination between the various administrations, departments, institutions and bodies, both military and civilian, national and international, within the sphere of controlling clandestine immigration by sea to the Canary Islands (see Félix Arteaga, ‘Maritime Illegal Migration Towards the European Union: The Command and Control Centre in the Canary Islands (Centro de Coordinación Regional de Canarias – CCR)’, ARI nr 54/2007, Elcano Royal Institute).

Organisation of African Sea Voyages with Illegal Emigrants
When it comes to assessing the phenomenon of illegal immigration by sea to the Canaries as an act of international organised crime, it is vital to analyse the basic components of its organisation by describing the preparatory activities necessary for this kind of crossing which, in some cases, imply travelling over more than 1,000 nautical miles.

The necessary activities for organising a crossing include luring the emigrants, hiding them and housing them somewhere near the departure point until the time comes, and later taking them to the places designated by the organisers. The most common departure points currently used on the Atlantic routes for pateras and cayucos are Cape Bojador, El Aaiún, Tarfaya, Dakhla and Lagouira in Morocco and the Western Sahara; Cape Blanco, Nouadhibou and Nouakchott in Mauritania; Mbour, Dakar, Kayar, Joal, Saint–Louis and the southern area of Casamance in Senegal; and Gunjur, Tanji and Barra in Gambia. Furthermore, in 2007 departure points have also been detected on the Cape Verde archipelago. In the case of large vessels used for mass immigration, the ports of the various countries on the Gulf of Guinea (Conakry or Bissau) are their main departure points.

The Internet is a source of propaganda for and against illegal migratory flows. For example, the website offers an overwhelming amount of information to make the crossing to the Canary Islands by cayuco and enter the EU, including prices of boats and motors, departure points, cost of the trip (including bribes to civil servants), what to do on arrival, marriages of convenience and a long list of further issues to stimulate demand for a place on board. In contrast, some governments and humanitarian organisations inform of the risks in a bid to dissuade potential ‘customers’ by warning of the dangers of these trips and showing the reality which illegal immigrants experience once they arrive at their destination, such as the stories posted on the website–en–un–cayuco.html, which show the darker side of the reality faced by the immigrants who make these clandestine journeys.

As for the means of transport, it is necessary to have the right boat. In some cases, second–hand fishing boats are used, but in others boats are acquired specifically for this activity. They usually mount two motors, which are typically 40/60HP each in the case of cayucos and 15HP in the case of pateras, and jerry cans with enough fuel (up to 600 litres) to make crossings which can last up to a fortnight. Preparations for these journeys must include the acquisition of goods to cover the basic food and water requirements, and enable the crossing to be made: a portable GPS Sat Nav system, water–proof and warm clothing and tarpaulins to cover people during the crossing. Another fundamental aspect in the organisation of these journeys is to find captains to steer the boats in shifts. In the case of cayucos between three and five captains are needed, and for pateras two are normally enough to cover some 20 hours of journey from Cape Bojador. Obtaining navigation aid points in order to reach the desired destination is another aspect of the logistics required for these voyages.

Furthermore, the organisers might include in the preparatory activities the establishment of contacts in the country of origin who, when suitably bribed, facilitate the departure of the boat or prevent its interception. The support of organisations also continues when they have arrived at the Canary Islands, and it might be logistical, although in some cases it goes beyond that, as made evident by the arrests of Senegalese interpreters in August 2007, who were lying about immigrants’ nationalities during police questioning in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, thus preventing their repatriation. Consequently, regardless of the well–known magnet effects and driving causes of African migration, it might also be said that the phenomenon has generated interests, most of which are financial, that directly or indirectly foster this clandestine phenomenon and hamper efforts to combat it.

The ‘Business’ of Pateras and Cayucos
Having examined the preparations required to initiate this process, it is clear that there needs to be a minimum organisation, preparation and coordination to allow its execution. However, this does not necessarily mean that the chain of actions necessary to help, facilitate or foster illegal immigration of this kind are originally executed by networks with a sophisticated structure and organisation such as those known in other criminal spheres, like drug–trafficking and terrorism. They tend rather to be unstructured organisations that conform to a mixed model, a combination of local mafia networks and opportunist traders, whose procedures, which at first required a minimum organisation, consisting of placing the owners of cayucos in contact with the organisers of the crossings, have been perfected so as to adapt to the situation resulting from the constant maritime police and coast–guard pressure off African shores. Undoubtedly, unlike the organisation of journeys in patera or cayuco, clandestine voyages in fishing boats or merchant vessels used for mass illegal immigration require greater preparation and therefore it is considered that the appearance of this kind of ‘slave ship’ does need a more sophisticated criminal network. This requires the same degree of sophistication shown by cross–continental mafias who bring Asian emigrants to the African coasts by air and board them onto ships.

Focusing on the organisation of a crossing in cayuco from one of the closest departure points, and according to estimates by Spanish Civil Guard liaison officers in Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde, it is possible to make an initial estimate of the economic volume of maritime traffic based on the following assumptions:

  • The price of a second–hand cayuco ranges from €6,000 to €12,000, depending on its size.
  • The price of a second–hand outboard motor is around €1,800.
  • Enough fuel to cross from the coast of Mauritania costs around €1,000, based on a total consumption of around 1,800 litres.
  • The wages of each of the three cayuco captains ranges between €300 and €500, although sometimes they agree to captain the boat in return for not paying for the trip.
  • Departure prices range from €600 with no guarantees and no logistics support to €900 for guaranteed departures including full logistics support and adequate clothing for the crossing. For trips in patera from the Western Sahara, the cost ranges between €800 and €1,000 for Sub–Saharan and Asian immigrants and between €400 and €600 for Moroccans. If the crossing is made in a fishing boat it costs €1,800.
  • Apart from these sums, the organisers pay between €9,000 and €11,000 to people who can guarantee the departure of the vessels in the various countries.

Accordingly, the profit from organising a voyage from the coast of Mauritania in a cayuco of some 25 metres in length equipped with two engines, taking 150 people with guaranteed departure, would be around €106,900, which breaks down into €28,100 in expenses for the organisation and €135,000 in revenues from passenger payments. According to these calculations, in 2006 some €75 million in profit would have been generated only on the Atlantic routes for the organisations dealing in voyages by patera and cayuco. This is a disproportionate operating profit in comparison with the risk taken on by the organisers.

Combating this kind of clandestine immigration is generating major costs for Europe and a major effort in economic, material and human terms for the Spanish government. On the one hand, around €2 million, which correspond to the direct cost of each of the maritime border surveillance and control operations in Africa, plus the cost of repatriations, the cost of deploying the Armed Forces, the national security, the Red Cross, the Maritime Search and Rescue Service and other bodies which are involved in this kind of mission and in maintaining detention centres, etc. There are also the sums earmarked for compensating African governments for their cooperation in managing clandestine flows of migrants based on agreements to exert police pressure in their territorial waters and to activate repatriation processes for their nationals when they are deported from the Canary Islands. In this regard, the latest agreements signed by Spain with Guinea–Conakry, Senegal and Gambia for immediate aid in controlling illegal immigration each cost €5 million and Spanish aid to the Sub–Saharan region has trebled in the last three years, exceeding €700 million in 2007.

Current Status of the Organisational Capacity of Illegal Immigration Mafias
In view of the profits which organising these trips can generate and the expenses which they incur, it might be possible to study whether an increase or decrease in the total number of vessels leaving for the Canary Islands is a indication of greater or lesser organisational capacity among the networks of illegal immigration. The total number of boats which have sought to leave Africa for the Canary Islands has diminished steadily since 2002, from 643 vessels to 283 (October 2007), except for the period of the new cayuco wave from Senegal during the first few months of 2006, when 609 boats were intercepted (see Graph 1).

Graph 1. Number of boats used to transport immigrants in the Atlantic

Source: Dirección General de Inmigración (MTAS) and the author.

This reduction is based mainly on two factors: first, the opening of new Atlantic routes to Senegal led to the addition of new kinds of boat and a change in the procedures used. On the one hand, the use of patera–type boats, measuring 5–6 metres in length, has given way to the use of cayuco–type boatsof 25–30 metres in length, clearly boosting transport capacity while using a smaller number of boats. Furthermore, almost derelict former merchant vessels have joined in the illegal transport of immigrants. These boats end up leaving ports around the Gulf of Guinea heading for Europe with little more than a paint job, despite being ready for the scrap heap, with hundreds of Asian and Sub–Saharan immigrants on board. One such example was the Marine I, intercepted in February 2007 with 372 illegal immigrants on board.

Secondly, the air–sea police deployment in African waters using resources from the Spanish Interior Ministry and Europe’s Frontex, the efforts by the police and the Spanish government in general in terms of repatriations and the increase in police cooperation in Africa, which has led to a spectacular increase in arrests on land (2,887 people arrested in Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea Bissau between August 2006 and the end of November 2007) and the subsequent dismantling of the mafia networks which operate there, sent a powerful dissuasive message to mafia organisations whose operating capacity has been undermined. Accordingly, the number of known vessels used for transporting illegal immigrants on the Atlantic routes has decreased by 52% compared with 2006 and by 54.5% compared with 2002.

Pivotal in achieving these objectives is the pressure in the countries of origin, with the fundamental support of coastal countries with which Spain has signed Memoranda of Understanding for police cooperation. Surveillance and control by European agencies in the territorial waters of other countries, an experiment launched for the first time in Europe and spearheaded by the Fiscal and Border Control Division of Spain’s Civil Guard (Jefatura de Fiscal y Fronteras de la Guardia Civil), implemented by members of its Air and Sea Service and supported by the efficient work of Civil Guard liaison officers and attachés from the Interior Ministry Police Department stationed in Africa, have yielded results which speak for themselves. The interceptions in Africa account for 45% of the total, ie, a 20% increase with respect to 2006, bringing arrivals to the Canary Islands down by more than 65% with respect to the same year. Furthermore, the excellent cooperation with Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde have allowed some 2,500 members of mafia gangs to be arrested in the countries of origin since the initiative was first launched in August 2006.

Nevertheless, the significant profits on the traffic of human beings encourage these mafia networks to seek new procedures and means of transport. In addition to the possible incorporation of merchant vessels, there has been a change in the traditional routes of the cayucos, which now extend all the way from the Cape Verde Archipelago as intermediate point, and a change in procedures, with cayuco–taxis which ferry illegal immigrants to other larger boats, in an attempt to escape the deployment of the air–sea surveillance units on patrol in Africa, and changing the nature of surveillance operations.

Conclusions: The organisation of Atlantic voyages from Africa to the Canary Islands using traditional boats such as pateras and cayucos and the so–called ‘slave ships’ has become a very lucrative business for the criminal networks operating in countries of origin, transit and destination of illegal immigrants. This kind of mafia is not yet highly structured but has perfected its procedures since 2005, changing the routes and boosting its information capacity so as to adapt to the air–sea agencies’ systems and deployment of sea border surveillance and control in the Canaries and in Africa. If it had not been for the following factors, they would have developed further: the multidisciplinary effort implemented by Spain in the fight against illegal immigration which has translated into an unprecedented diplomatic drive in the quest for long–standing bilateral police and governmental cooperation; the execution for the first time in Europe of sea border control operations in territorial waters of non–EU countries, via the intermittent deployment of EU air–sea units and the permanent deployment of Spanish Interior Ministry personnel, especially belonging to the Civil Guard; the establishment of liaison officials and attachés from the Interior Ministry in Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau; police cooperation by the African countries involved; the Spanish repatriation policy; and the centralisation of all actions via the Canary Islands Regional Coordination Centre. All of these measures have allowed a 57% reduction since 2006 in the number of boats arriving at the Canary Islands, and have led to almost 3,000 arrests in a year–and–a–half and the interception of more than 8,000 people attempting to emigrate illegally.

Despite these achievements, this is nevertheless a type of migration resulting from structural causes. Despite the risks involved in trying to emigrate via this route to the Canary Islands, the need and expectations of improving their standard of living will continue to feed the numbers of potential emigrants. A number of more or less organised criminal groups tap into this demand to profit from the trafficking of illegal immigrants, obtaining millions of euros in return. Police pressure at source and the system of repatriating those who manage to arrive illegally are the most efficient measures in controlling the phenomenon. These measures and the necessary information campaigns to dissuade Africans from undertaking such dangerous illegal adventures are fundamental to preventing unscrupulous criminals from profiting at the expense of the suffering of others.

Francisco Javier Vélez Alcalde
Commander of the Civil Guard, General Staff Graduate and Head of Planning and Organisation for the Canary Islands Regional Coordination Centre