Ex-Gatwick Airport customs officer shares border control secrets, including live snails packed with cocaine

From catching a seven-year-old with 12,000 cigarettes to waiting 40 days to see if a smuggler had swallowed drugs, no two days were the same for former customs and excise officer John Clarke.

John Clarke with his book, Time To Declare
John Clarke with his book, Time To Declare

After a 31-year career at Gatwick Airport, Rustington’s John has shared some of his favourite anecdotes, as well as a devastating personal loss, in his debut book, Time To Declare.

Inspired by the success of television shows such as Sky’s Nothing To Declare, John’s book offers a peek behind the scenes of border control and what it takes to tell a nervous flier from a jittery drugs mule.

“I think people are interested in what goes on,” said the 57-year-old. “Why did they stop me? Why did they pick on him? People are fascinated with customs work and I wanted to be able to tell the story from my point of view, and hope it will inform and entertain people.”

John Clarke with his book, Time To Declare

Smuggled contraband could range from a wrist watch – undeclared to avoid paying VAT – to kilos of drugs that would fetch tens of thousands of pounds on the street.

John said the lengths to which people would go in order to move drugs over the border never failed to surprise him.

One group had packed the shells of giant African land snails with cocaine packets, he said, before freezing the animals and placing them in a suitcase in the hold.

Unbeknownst to the smugglers, the makeshift mules were still alive and, after thawing out, slithered around and dislodged their expensive cargo in full view of customs officials.

John Clarke during his time at Gatwick Airport

Another attempt saw dozens of hollowed-out walnuts filled with tiny amounts of cocaine.

But for all the ingenious methods, there was always ineptitude, complacency and outright cockiness, John said.

Some people would simply wrap their drugs in a towel and leave them at the top of their suitcase. One man, when caught with his drug-filled bag, tried to eat his laminated boarding card to destroy any evidence it was his.

Of course, no book on customs and excise would be complete without pulling on a pair of latex gloves and delving deeper into the subject matter.

In the 1980s, John said, smugglers suspected of carrying contraband internally would have to be seen to have two full bowel movements – a job described as ‘babysitting’.

With technology significantly less advanced, the searching process then involved a see-through bag, a sieve and some waterproof gloves.

John remembered one man steadfastly holding out on his second bowel movement for 40 days in custody. An undeniably impressive feat under the circumstances but, John said, nature took its course in the end.

The record haul for swallowed packages stood at over 100, totalling almost half a kilo of cocaine, in what was surely an ordeal at both ends of the process.

Although it was easy to see the humour in the weird and wonderful attempts to fool the officers, John said he never lost sight of reality.

Desperate smugglers would often be paid as little as £1,000 to risk their safety and freedom in getting products worth 50 times that amount onto the streets.

“I always treated everyone the same,” he said. “I didn’t judge anyone – you had to be professional, your job was to enforce the law.

“A lot of these ‘couriers’ were from third world countries, backed into a corner and doing whatever they could to feed their families.

“They were the ones taking all the risks while the kingpins stayed back at home. I took no joy in seeing people go to prison, just in the law being administered.”

Still, he said, there was no denying the buzz of seizing a big haul or foiling a particularly ingenious plot.

With intuition such a major part of identifying potential smugglers, officers could find themselves on a ‘hot streak’, with their confidence high and courage in their convictions.

Similarly, John said officers could go through dry patches, doubting their abilities and going weeks without a discovery.

Although it was impossible to pinpoint how much contraband was getting over the border, the street value of drugs was a useful indicator – if drug prices went up, the officers knew they were doing a good job. Down, and the market was flooding with drugs and they needed to up their game.

John said the key was to spot those trying hardest to fit in, then it was a case of asking the right questions and watching their stories unravel.

He said: “It’s very normal to be nervous through customs. It’s about distinguishing between natural nerves and unnatural nerves. You’re looking for someone who is trying to fit in, but that’s something that can only be gained from experience.

“You have to be able to rely on your intuition. I love watching people and I love talking to them, but you’ve got to have that inquisitive mind. You can’t just let someone go because they seem honest.”

Alongside his experiences at the border, Time To Declare covers John’s return from devastating tragedy.

In 1989, John married his first wife, Sharon, a fellow customs officer at Gatwick. The couple had two children, in 1991 and 1993, before Sharon was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1996.

She passed away a year later, aged 29, in the care of St Barnabas House hospice in Worthing.

John was naturally devastated but, with two young children to care for and a job to hold down, he was forced to get on with life while seeking support from a bereaved children’s group run by St Barnabas House.

At the time, he wrote a book for his young children about their mother, telling the story of how they met and the kind of woman she was.

He described it as a cathartic experience and a piece of writing that would add a personal perspective to Time To Declare.

It was at the bereaved children’s group that he met Sallie, who had recently lost her husband. The two families united, raising their five children together in what John said was his ‘second chance’.

The couple have now been married for 20 years and, with the children grown up and out of the house, it was time for John to finally publish his book.

With the help of a friend he met through writing for a Fulham Football Club fanzine, he released Time To Declare.

“Going through what I went through, it puts things into perspective,” he said. “We are all here for the blink of an eye, so I thought why not try to get a book published?

“That’s something I can be proud of and for my kids to be able to say ‘my dad’s a published author’. I’ve found the whole experience very life affirming.”

Time to Declare is available to order online, via www.timetodeclare.co.uk