The ongoing war against traffickers of the Aegean Sea is starting to show signs of winning for the joint forces of the European Union. We flew in a FRONTEX helicopter to watch its men in action. Story, photos: Costas Lakafossis
It is a few minutes after 5a.m. in the still dark Samos airport-under the car headlights, Captain Ivan Ivanovs completes his flight plan and hands over the paper for us to sign our presence in the Border Patrol flight that is about to take off in a few minutes, in the Latvian Border Guard Augusta A109E helicopter. This is one of the many border patrol operations that are operated in Greece under the coordination of FRONTEX, the european organization that uses personnel and means from all european countries.
Until putting on the life-vest and strapping ourselves to the rear right seat of the helicopter, there have been three months of efforts, requests and negotiations with all agencies involved (FRONTEX, the Hellenic Coast Guard and the foreign delegations), and all this for a reason: it is not only the dangers of flying at night over the sea, operation “Poseidon” has a lot of classified information in its planning, being a large and fairly complex police operation, based on information, special tactics and an ongoing “chess game” with the smugglers and traffickers of every kind.
Giving truth to the greek saying “whoever persists, wins in the end”, the message to travel to Samos and wait for further instructions came as a pleasant surprise. Up until the last moment, we would not know when exactly or where to we would be flying, as this information is both confidential and changing every day according to the updated information and predictions of the ICC in Piraeus. Almost always, though, the helicopters are put into better use during night flight, as their night flying and observation capabilities using the infrared (FLIR) camera gives them the operational advantage to the border guards. During the day, with good visibility, the ground stations and the marine vessels are usually enough to cover the area from Samos to Agathonisi, the main target area of the team we are following.
Takeoff is around 5a.m. In complete darkness, but a few minutes later the sky starts to show the first weak signs of daylight, still more than one hour away. Visibility is not a problem- neither for flight safety nor for identifying “targets”, which means any marine vessel of any type moving in our target area. This is a job for Aleksandrs Kudrjavcevs, the camera operator, who operates the camera towards every direction, spotting and zooming in towards any little speck on the horizon, before we even have to fly closer to take a look. Apart from visibility in total darkness, the infrared camera is also very useful because it can “see” the difference in temperature for every object in its field of view. Thus, a fishing boat with two passengers shows a clear image of a cold vessel with three hot spots, one each for the passengers and the engine. Anyway, we are not only dependent on our own eyes and cameras: along the coastline of Samos and Agathonisi, there are a lot of “mobile stations”, i.e. hidden observers that change positions everyday and use infrared cameras and powerful telescopes. So, the starting point and the route of the fishing boat below us is already known , and this gives another indication of its “danger level”.
Along with the pilot, co-pilot and camera operator, a Hellenic Coast Guard liaison officer is aboard all aircraft and marine vessels at every time, and his job is to communicate in the CG networc and contact the ICC headquarters in Piraeus if need arises. Lt. Katsougiannopoulos, an engineer from the HGC aircraft division, takes note of all GPS points and events, is in constant communication with ground and marine stations and also provides the fourth set of eyes in scanning the horizon for unknown vessels, so that nothing is missed. From the coastline of Samos, the fligth to Agathonisi is only 7 minutes, and can be done in 5 if we are in a hurry, like when we have a target to intercept quickly.
With a good network of observers, information from the military radars and the 11 meter fast boat with the Latvian flag that we see below us after a few minutes, the odds are in strong favour of the “good guys”-it would be very difficult for the “others” to break through, and if they are lucky, their luck runs out quickly. Two days before our visit, a turkish trafficker ran out of luck at this area: he had been using a fast jet-ski for quick “commando” operations with one or two passengers each time. “We spotted him crossing to the nearest point to Samos a few days ago, but the fast boat was not close enough to catch him. The next time, we spotted him early and the boat moved to block his path, so he turned around and went back. The third time, he fell in our trap: we watched him cross, for safety reasons we waited until he left the people he was carrying, and on his return trip our fastboat caught up with him and arrested him. He was a 40 year old turk who admitted his actions, and he was sent to the authorities in Patmos for legal action”, as Lt.Cdr. Kourkoulis, the ICC coordinator recalls the story. In Samos, we have the opportunity to have a first hand account from Igor Belaks, the tall and daunting captain of the Latvian fast boat that made the arrest. “A jet ski is very fast and agile, but in the dark we have the upper hand, because we have radar, infrared and many observers around, while he is almost blind”, he explains, and his almost childish smile shows that he is not in Greece just counting the time to pass, but he is a trained professional who likes his job and actively tries to get a good result.
The goodwill and expert efficiency of everybody involved, is soon obvious in action, a few minutes before the end of our flight, when a luxury cruiser with an american and turkish flag is spotted passing near Agathonisi at full speed, and (besides against the law for not flying a greek flag) it is considered suspect.
“An american flag is always suspect”, says the captain over the intercom. “If you have something to hide, it is quite easy to put a fake sticker and change the name of the boat, and fly an american flag to try to pass as above the law”, they explain later. Considering the 3,000USD per illegal passenger, it is not hard to believe the story about the luxury yacht with a topless girl on the top deck that was caught further north, carrying 15 hidden passengers below its deck.
In our case, the american proved to be real and his storage space empty, but the speed and efficiency by which he was spotted from the helicopter and intercepted by the impressive, military fast boat, has surely removed all feelings of homesickness from him.
The FRONTEX operation in the Aegean Sea, is a much larger and effective operation than one would assume. Besides statistics and official statements from the involved agencies, it is sometimes better to sit around and talk with simple people at Phythagorio. “It used to be mayhem here, there were two drowned people that were washed off just in front of the shop. They abandoned them in high seas with cheap inflatables that you can buy in a super-market”, Vassilis says. “Here, in this half-finished house, slept an Afghan who had paid money to be ferried across, and he had broken teeth because the traffickers had beaten him to get all his money. He was waiting for his father to bring more money so that the traffickers would take him to the Netherlands, I never learned what finally happened with him”, he remembers.
His friend Dimitris has similar stories to offer, and they both agree in something: “All this ended in March, when the helicopters and the foreigners came here. We now hear about one incident each month, when we never had one single quiet day before that”. Official statistics show a reduction of 80% in illegal immigrants in this area, but Lt.Cdr. Kourkoulis would rather count arrests: “This is a police operation, and our enemy is not the immigrant but the trafficker and the smuggler. These are who we want to catch, and lately we are doing quite well…”
Vimagazino-To Vima tis Kyriakis, July 11, 2010