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Costa del Sol, the drug smuggling crossroads

A police diver and officer search for evidence at the scene of a recent crime in Mijas Costa.
A police diver and officer search for evidence at the scene of a recent crime in Mijas Costa. / F. T.
  • organised crime

  • The authorities say there are currently between 50 and 100 criminal gangs based on the Costa

He can often be seen driving around in a luxury car, visiting shops where he spends a great deal of money on designer clothes, eating in good restaurants and closing business deals. For his neighbours, who also live in the labyrinth of residential developments on the Costa del Sol, he is just another rich foreigner. He goes almost unnoticed. What they don't realise is that he is carrying a gun under his shirt and he sells drugs. He is a trafficker. One of the many who, together with their gang members, have come to live in Malaga, the place at which their paths cross.

The Tower of Babel of the drugs world is being created on the Costa, where there are currently between 50 and 100 gangs of different nationalities, according to an Interior Ministry report on organised crime in Spain.

The report shows that Malaga is one of the six provinces in the country with the highest number of these groups. They choose the Costa del Sol as the best place in which to settle and carry out their criminal business because it has numerous attractions for them, says an investigator who specialises in the fight against drug trafficking, These include the good communications with an international airport and the many residential developments where they can go about their illegal business unnoticed.

Strategic location

Above all, though, Andalucía and more specifically Malaga and Cadiz are the gateway to Europe for drug smugglers. The province is in a strategic location. It is close to Morocco, where the hashish is produced and brought to Spain via the beaches and through Algeciras port. The port is one of the fourth largest in Europe, and last year it handled 109,367,964 tonnes of cargo. A true multitude of containers pass through there, including some which are full of hidden drugs, principally cocaine from Latin America, but also heroin, other illegal substances and even weapons, such as AK-47s.

However, Spain is also a country in which drugs are produced, and Malaga and Granada have become the principal suppliers of marijuana. From Spain, where the merchandise is guarded in what are known as 'nurseries', the different substances are distributed to the rest of Europe.

The gangs used to specialise in particular drugs according to their nationality, for example Colombian organisations trafficked cocaine and the Italians hashish. That has changed in recent years, as the criminals got to know each other in jail and formed new gangs upon their release; these groups are smaller and more specialised, according to another police officer who is an expert in the field.

He explains that, although the biggest organisations concentrate on drug trafficking, the smaller groups are subcontracted for a variety of other tasks such as stealing powerful 4x4 vehicles to load up the drugs when they are brought onto the beaches.

Costa del Sol, the drug smuggling crossroads

When everything is going well, these different groups coexist with no problems, but when something goes wrong the revenge can be bloody. That is when the gangs are needed to carry out other services, such as extortion, kidnapping or murders to 'settle the scores'.

In recent months officers from the National Police and Guardia Civil have broken up several gangs of hitmen from Sweden who have been commissioned to carry out revenge killings. They have nothing to do with the conflicts. They just fly in, carry out the crime and leave.

These deaths leave a bloody trail of organised crime on the Costa del Sol and that trail is becoming longer. Official figures show that there were eight revenge killings in 2019, the same number as the year before, but there were also more than 50 other incidents of violence, including attempted murder, injuries, kidnappings and damage to property - such as the explosions that were the first cases of narco-terrorism registered in Malaga.

Always armed

This increase in violence is experienced first-hand by the officers whose job involves them risking their lives on the streets. From the drug trafficking operations they've been involved in, they can see that today's criminals all carry weapons and are even equipped with bulletproof vests.

There are two reasons for this. The first is the change of profile of the traffickers and the criminals who move in those circles; they are younger nowadays and less afraid of using a firearm. The police say these are the most violent. For example, the members of one of these groups of hitmen were all aged between 20 and 30.

The other reason is the theft of drugs or money among traffickers. The structure of the National Police in the Campo de Gibraltar area has been reinforced and the Guardia Civil now has a Drug Trafficking Coordination Organisation (OCON). In just a year and a half they have made nearly 3,000 arrests, and the gangs have changed their routines as a result.

Stealing hauls

Now the traffickers have to go outside the Campo de Gibraltar area to unload the boats and, because of the difficulties involved in bringing drugs in and unloading them, they are finding it much more profitable simply to steal them. They often steal the vehicle being used by another gang, or raid the place they are using to store the haul. With this new situation, violence and revenge attacks have increased, and so has the use of weapons.

Many of the weapons are used to intimidate, to demonstrate power, such as explosives and long guns, especially the AK-47 (Kalashnikov) assault rifle, the type used at the end of last year to shoot a 20-year-old in Mijas.

This type of weapon comes from countries in Eastern Europe where there have been conflicts in the past. One of the officers says they can be bought on the black market for about 600 euros if they are 'dirty' - in other words, if they have been used to shoot someone.

The not only demonstrate power, but are also used to protect the valuable 'nurseries' where the drugs are kept.

The police have seen that some Moroccan producers no longer use local clans for the logistical side of transporting the drugs. Instead, they send their own people to store them and distribute them to the big importing groups on the continent, and that affects the price.

For example, if in Spain a kilo of hashish can be around 2,000 euros, depending on the quality, in some European countries it is now being sold for between 8,000 and 10,000 euros.

That is increasing the violence between the mafia groups in those countries such as Sweden, the country from which, curiously, the gang that carried out the attacks with explosives on the Costa del Sol in 2018 came. It was broken up last year by the security forces.