Spanish and Bulgarian police have broken up an organised criminal prostitution network centred on Puerto Banús, Marbella.
In a joint operation, 34 people were arrested in both countries for supposedly forming part of a gang that was aiming to take control of the exploitation of women in the area stretching from Torremolinos to Puerto Banús.
Thirteen female victims, who had purportedly been lured to Spain from their native Bulgaria then forced into prostitution, were freed, police have said.
The investigation started in September 2014 after a Bulgarian woman, who had been held captive, managed to escape and went to police in Marbella.
The local investigation soon revealed the scale of the operation, with the alleged criminals travelling constantly between Spain and Bulgaria. As a result, Bulgarian police and justice officials became involved under the auspices of Europol and Eurojust.
The partnership between both countries unearthed a network of people in Bulgaria who looked for women in the poorest districts of the country, convincing them to come to Spain for a better life.
Once the victims agreed, the members of the group travelled with them to Malaga airport where they were met by other criminals from the network who took them to apartments in Torremolinos. Here they joined other women who were already in the country.
According to investigators, at this point the new arrivals were told that they would be working as prostitutes and were placed under constant guard. Those who refused were subjected to violence and warned that harm could come to their families back in Bulgaria. Many women had left children back home.
The women were obliged to find customers in the streets and bars of Puerto Banús, being taken there by their minders daily. They then used hotels or apartments in the Banús area with their clients. Moreover, they were encouraged to steal personal belongings from the men they had met, including watches, credit cards and cash. Some women also used the stolen credit cards to withdraw money for the gang.
The level of control was such that those behind the ring even reportedly specified the profile of client that the women had to look for:foreign tourists wearing expensive items and preferably drunk. Money raised from the ring was sent back to Bulgaria, police say.
In total, 21 searches were carried out in Torremolinos, Marbella and Estepona and a further 15 in Bulgaria. Large amounts of cash, watches and sleeping drugs were found.