It is early morning in La Línea de la Concepción. The air is clear and the African coast is visible on the horizon. On this side of the Strait, hundreds of vehicles line up in Avenida Príncipe de Asturias to cross the border to Gibraltar, where about 10,000 local people go to work every day. Others cross on foot. In Calle Real, in the town centre, some of the shops are beginning to open.
However, La Línea's other economy, tobacco smuggling and drug trafficking, is also waking up. These activities are becoming increasingly common in a municipality whose development is conditioned by its proximity to Morocco, the biggest producer of hashish in the world, and its economic dependence on Gibraltar, now under threat from Brexit.
In the past year, the mafia groups have become more violent. They now confront the security forces over packages of drugs, they recently attacked the local hospital to rescue a member of their gang who had been arrested and they harassed a female judge in the street just because they felt like it. This is the law of the strongest. They are fully aware that La Línea lacks police resources, but in addition they can count on the silence of a community which they enable to earn a living. With 35 per cent unemployment, part of the local population finds smuggling to be a lucrative way of life in the absence of other opportunities.
Many of these collaborators operate in the Levante district, where the lookouts, known as 'puntos' or 'aguadores', take up their positions mid-morning to spot anything unusual, and pass information about every police patrol that passes through the area. This is their everyday work, helping to ensure that nobody stops a haul being unloaded from a boat, and they can earn 1,000 euros a day.
“They have us marked. They know exactly where we are at every moment, from the moment we leave the headquarters until we return. We can't work like this,” says Alberto (not his real name), a Guardia Civil officer with 20 years' experience.
Strangers to La Línea may not notice the lookouts, but their 'uniforms' give them away: Adidas or Nike tracksuit; bag on the hip and phone in a pocket with the earpiece always in place so they can give an immediate warning if necessary. Many of them ride motorcycles.
“They love Yamahas. There are about 50 of them in strategic positions. Look, some of them are over there,” says Alberto, pointing towards one of the bars, where there is a constant coming and going. It is right opposite La Atunara beach, where boats loaded with hashish arrive and the police chase traffickers on almost a daily basis, amid the fishing boats and local residents walking along the seafront promenade.
The other side of the road from the beach, which ought to be an enviable location, is lined with old fishermen's cottages. The police frequently search them because of their links with drug trafficking. Many of them display 'For Sale' signs.
“We ought to have a seafront like the ones on the Costa del Sol, but we don't. Ours has social housing on it, and this is the best part of town. The Urban Plan needs to be changed, and we are working on that,” says Juan Franco, the mayor, whose party La Línea 100x100 governs in coalition with the Partido Popular.
He stresses that not everyone in this area is a criminal: “There are very honest people here as well; my mother grew up in the San Bernardo district, next to La Atunara,” he says.
It was there, very recently, that around 20 hooded men burst into the hospital to rescue a suspected member of Los Castañitas clan who had been arrested and taken for treatment for an injury.
Their modus operandi caused considerable alarm. They didn't need to try very hard, because the hospital can be easily accessed and there are hardly any controls over entry. There was an immediate reaction to the attack. “The very next day, we went from having three guards on each shift to eight,” says a security guard from a private firm, standing in front of the entrance to the Emergency Department.
Many local people are wondering what will happen next, bearing in mind the impunity with which the drug traffickers act.
“Are they going to attack a police station, like in the Westerns when the outlaws confront the sheriff?” asks Francisco Mena, president of 'Nexos', the Campo de Gibraltar Federation of Associations against Drugs. He says the gangs feel confident because they know the police lack resources and that a lot of local people will protect them. With a low level of education and few job opportunities, they have made tobacco and drug smuggling their way of life.
“It is too big an enemy; it's like a seven-headed serpent, because no matter how often you cut one off new ones grow,” says Juan Franco, who complains that the government has “abandoned” La Línea.
“We need more security. We need a special plan for this area which involves all the administrations. It is as if to have a clean and beautiful Costa del Sol, there has to be a sewer and it's been decided that La Línea should be that sewer,” he says.
To the astonishment of the whole country, the attack on the hospital was followed by another unprecedented episode when about 40 drug traffickers, many of whom had been involved in the hospital assault, surrounded and harassed a female judge as she left the court. It wasn't difficult. The court is on the ground floor of an apartment block and has only one door, which is used by detainees, judges and lawyers. Until this incident occurred, there was not even a reserved parking space.
“They have lost all respect”
In the past two years there has been a major difference in the blatant behaviour of those involved in hashish trafficking.
“As time has passed they have lost all respect for us. They don't run away when they see us any more. They confront us, instead. A year ago, when about 100 people from La Atunara surrounded seven Guardia Civil and National Police officers who were trying to stop drugs being unloaded from a boat, we realised how serious the situation was and demanded more officers as a matter of urgency,” says José Cobo, spokesman for the Spanish Association of Guardia Civil Officers (AEGC). “They took no notice. All they did was assign reinforcements in the summer, but with the crisis in Catalonia that didn't last very long at all. Time has shown that we were right; we weren't crying wolf,” Cobo adds.
In the explosive cocktail formed by the San Bernardo district, La Atunara beach and El Zabal, more than 30 'collas' (drug trafficking gangs) operate and they move more than 325 million euros a year, according to data from the National Police and the tax authorities in a report called 'Socio-economic survey on the impact of Brexit on La Línea', which was produced by the local council.
The mayor is due to attend an event at a home for the elderly in La Atunara. He travels in a Mercedes. “It's 20 years old, and was bought at an auction organised by the National Anti-Drugs Plan,” he hastens to explain. “There are people who support the drug traffickers here, but I would hate us to end up in a situation where we all have to carry guns.... I go everywhere in this town, and I have hardly ever had a bodyguard,” he says.
Away from these conflictive districts, where everyone looks at people who aren't local but leaves them alone if they don't raise suspicions, life goes on as normal.
“This isn't an unsafe town in terms of other crimes, but the drugs are a serious problem,” says David Montes, the general secretary in Andalucía of the Federal Union of Police (UFP).
Tobacco smuggling, because of the advantages of having Gibraltar next door, is a day-to-day activity in La Línea. Not everybody does it, but many don't object to it even though it is illegal.
“People think it's better to do that than steal in order to eat,” says Pablo, a 25-year-old who works for a legal firm in this town of 63,000 inhabitants. However, although some people don't care, it has led others to ruin because in ten years La Línea has gone from having 12 tobacconist shops to just three.
“With the economic crisis, the tobacco smuggling reached intolerable levels. Nobody cares or does anything about it,” says Salvador Vera, president of the Association of Tobacconists of Cadiz.
These days, local people seem indifferent to the anti-drugs operations as well. They are no longer surprised at seeing major operations such as a recent one, when police, Guardia Civil officers and tax officials carried out raids and confiscated seven 4x4 vehicles and 3,000 kilos of hashish in a single day. That was in the luxury Santa Margarita development, which adjoins El Zabal. It is another hot spot for drug trafficking, and the motorboats are hidden there.
In Santa Margarita hundreds of properties (some of them mansions which have been converted into bunkers) have been built illegally on rural land without the authorities doing anything to prevent it. At present, the town hall is dealing with 500 demolition orders.
“It is like a mousetrap when we're chasing someone,” says Alberto. The roads are unsurfaced, there is no street lighting and it is a maze of haphazardly-built streets. One double-gated house follows another.
“They build a huge entrance so they can bring the launches in, and another iron gate to make it difficult for the security forces to enter when carrying out a search. We can spend hours trying to knock those down,” he says.
A man is standing outside one of the properties. Someone comes out. “Quick, look, do you see? That isn't the entrance to a house; it's a gateway to another street with houses on both sides. When they are running away they go through there, shut the gate and there is no way of knowing where they are after that,” he explains.
Impunity at sea
Three officers from the National Police and Guardia Civil who work in La Línea tell us that every day, in this part of the Campo de Gibraltar alone, at least seven motorboats, or 'narco-launches', arrive, each carrying between 2,000 and 3,000 kilos of hashish.
“When they see our boats at sea they don't even have to flee. They just move a mile away and wait. They know that with our engines we would never be able to catch them,” says one of the officers.
José Encinas, the spokesman in Cadiz for the Unified Association of Guardia Civil Officers (AUGC), says the problem is that the drug traffickers have become more defiant and moved the conflict up a step. Some officers have found their car tyres slashed or have been threatened when out with their families.
“They shop in other towns so they don't bump into them. Some officers have even returned to La Línea after working elsewhere and, when they have seen what things are like here now, have gone to work in the Basque Country because they say it is preferable,” says Alberto.
Although José Encinas doesn't believe the problem is irreversible, he does consider it “sufficiently serious for them to send us the extra officers we have been requesting”.
David Montes agrees: he says the drug traffickers “are crossing unacceptable boundaries and putting innocent citizens in danger, when they try to escape and during police operations”.
The people of La Línea seemed immune to all this, until the incident at the hospital “took our blinkers off. Although it was a dreadful thing to happen, at least it means that the authorities ought to take notice now,” says one local resident, Esperanza Valenzuela.
The problem is so serious that even the president of the Junta de Andalucía, Susana Díaz, has admitted that the drug traffickers “are roaming freely around the Campo de Gibraltar”.
The central government's delegate in Andalucía, Antonio Sanz, recently met local politicians, police and members of local associations, who told him that La Línea needs to be given special attention. He then went on to meet the Minister of the Interior, Juan Ignacio Zoido, who promised to “continue reinforcing” the fight against drug trafficking. “La Línea is not going to have to deal with this on its own,” said Sanz.
million euros a year are defrauded from the State coffers because of the smuggling carried out by over 30 mafia groups in La Línea.
National Police officers are assigned to Cadiz province, half of them in the Campo de Gibraltar. Another 25 per cent are needed. A similar number of of Guardia Civil officers are based in the headquarters in Cadiz and Algeciras. Hierarchy
The 'army' of collaborators with the drug mafias include 'aguadores' (informers) who earn between 1,000 and 2,000 euros; 'paqueteros' (they unload drugs from a boat in less than four minutes) who earn between 2,000 and 3,000 euros, and those who pilot the launches and drive the 4x4s, who earn 30,000 euros.
One of the most important operations carried out recently in La Línea de la Concepción took place in January, with the dismantling of a sophisticated radar system in two houses in La Atunara district. Camouflaged by solar panels, they consisted of two antennae which enabled the drug traffickers to know exactly where the patrol boats and helicopters were and keep the boats bringing hashish to be unloaded on local beaches informed in real time.
April 2017. On the Tonelero beach, seven National Police and Guardia Civil officers were attacked by over 100 people when they were trying to seize a haul of drugs. The crowd started by hurling insults and then threw rocks and bricks. The result? Three officers were slightly injured, the windows of two patrol cars were broken, two people were arrested and the drugs disappeared. This incident was a turning point in the modus operandi of the mafias in La Línea.
June 2017. A Local Police officer in La Línea de la Concepción died after being accidentally run over by the police van in which he had been travelling. He and his colleagues were chasing a tobacco smuggler who fled after being ordered to stop.
February 2018. A well-known trafficker from Galicia, Sito Miñanco, was arrested in Algeciras in an operation in which two officers from the GEO squad were injured. He was working in a car park, but is believed to have returned to build the structure to run a team of drug traffickers and bring cocaine into Spain.