Friday, 7 July 2023, 17:30
The drug traffickers (narcos) have all the required resources to hand. The police depend on their expertise and gut instinct. It is often a one-sided struggle waged daily by officers from UDYCO-Costa del Sol (drugs and organised crime unit) in the province, where most of the mafia gangs that ship drugs through Spain are based. A fight in which the criminals they are trying to catch do not think twice about pulling the trigger or ramming a police car at more than 200km/h in a road pursuit.
The unit welcomed SUR to the Torremolinos-Benalmádena National Police station, although their patch is on the streets. That is where their hard work happens, always alert and never forgetting that their loved ones expect them home. That thought runs through their minds even more so when in threatening situations and the adrenaline's pumping. "That's when you think about family the most," said one of the officers.
As UDYCO members put it, their work is a calling, a profession, but danger is an integral part of their work. They do not lose sight of their overall objective: to rid the Costa del Sol of criminal gangs, even if it seems like an impossible mission. They know that they are battling giants. Despite all the successful police raids, the countless arrests made and the networks taken down, such operations rarely translate into checkmate for the drug traffickers.
There are issues with proving the guilt of those involved in these criminal networks when it comes to legal proceedings, especially pinning down the ringleaders. Also the frequency with which they are released on bail pending trial. Then add in that these gangs control a well-established infrastructure with strong, financial backing. With such resources to hand, as UDYCO officers have been stating for years, these traffickers can swiftly regroup and resume their illegal activities after a short while.
The result, as the team admits, feels like they are always going back to square one. "We are clear about what our role is and, whatever happens, we remain focused on that, although it's disheartening when the big bosses, the ones right at the top, and those who finance the entire organisation, all too often go unpunished," admitted one officer. After all, they put their lives on the line to stop them.
To give an example of the risks they face, they told us of a search they undertook as part of Operation Squidward Tentacles (a character from SpongeBob SquarePants). Cute name, but the criminals they were looking for, a man and his two sons known for hashish trafficking, did not roll out the red carpet when the officers showed up: "We were shot at by the father, but fortunately the pistol jammed; we realised it when we looked back on footage from the security camera... our faces were a picture".
The police seized 700kg of drugs, the boats used for their illegal shipments, along with documents and weapons. They provided the prosecuting authorities with logged evidence, including video footage. In the video it was clear to see the man pointing his gun at officers and pulling the trigger as they entered the house, which was protected by an armoured door, more typically seen on a bunker. "Afterwards it was deemed there had been no gun fired, nor attempted murder, otherwise we'd be talking of a more serious incident," they said.
Despite everything, the officers in the UDYCO-Costa del Sol unit know how to play their cards to gain ground in this battle and be the scourge of drug traffickers, hit-men and smugglers alike. They know the people they're dealing with and they know the streets like nobody else. Once they pick up on a lead, they follow the trail wherever it takes them until they identify the criminals up to no good in the province. The trail often leads to other parts of Spain and even overseas.
The surprise factor often gives the team the upper hand. "In general, we are the ones who decide when to make the most of evidence gathered during the operation - the best moment to strike, making arrests and conducting searches - because we know they will be caught off-guard," one member explained. On some occasions they don't have such good fortune, but experience chalks up a point to the police. "There are times when we have to step in because we're about to catch them in the middle of a drug shipment or simply because the situation is getting out of hand and we have to act immediately," they pointed out.
One example of when an urgent response was needed involved officers from UDYCO-Costa del Sol teaming up with other specialist units from organised crime, tactical ops, riot control, air support, hostage negotiation and forensics. The 50-strong team was deployed at the beginning of May to secure the rapid release of a cryptocurrency manager who had been kidnapped and was being held against his will at a luxury property in Benalmádena. His captors were demanding one million euros in ransom and sent photos of the victim to a known contact of his showing a gun pointed at his head.
A snapshot taken by the hostage at a moment when the kidnappers were distracted proved key. The photo showed a window and beyond, some of the surroundings. It could have been any old place, but the officers who know the Costa del Sol like the back of their hand, managed to identify the area and locate the three-storey villa just five hours after learning of the kidnapping. And judging by the scene they found during the raid, with a room completely covered with plastic sheeting and containing chainsaws, the officers are convinced they saved the cryptocurrency manager from certain death.
Focusing on the most violent criminals has also led officers to learn how far they can go when the scene is unfolding. It helps to be aware that one's life is worth more than any drug bust or arrest. "We know, for example, that when we come across someone of French-Arab descent working the narco boats or any other high-powered transport methods for drug-running, it is not worth trying to stop them because it is just impossible; they will kill," they said.
To illustrate it, they detail how one of their colleagues nearly met his end in October 2021 when his police pursuit vehicle was rammed on the A-45 dual carriageway. "He was saved by a miracle," they said. The car in which the officer was travelling was tracking two vehicles acting suspiciously. It was a van and a shuttle car that typically travels ahead to warn of any police presence. They had all the signs of being on a drugs run.
The pursuit reached Monturque in Cordoba, where the criminals rammed the unmarked police car. At Malaga's Las Pedrizas tollbooth officers had stopped the driver of the van and the traffickers fled. In the course of the pursuit they had driven officers off the road. Two police officers were injured, one seriously. He survived, although he seriously feared for his life.
The criminal scheme, based in the province, involved the transfer to France of large amounts of hashish using the 'go-fast' transport method. Five men were arrested for their membership in the organisation. They were charged with belonging to a criminal organisation, attempted homicide, drug trafficking, intimidation (of police or witnesses), covering up the crime, receiving and false documentation. The main suspect in the attempted murder was placed on remand, although the rest were released on bail, but with strict conditions.
The work of the members of UDYCO-Costa del Sol is unseen, unheard, often a thankless task and they go to extremes in their efforts to put an end to organised crime in Malaga. Theirs is a fight in which strategy and experience become their best weapons to defeat the narcos.
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