Cocaine fleets bring wealth and death to the end of the earth

Elizabeth Nash reports from Vilagarcia de Arousa in Galicia, once impoverished but now the favoured point of entry for the Colombian cartels
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The Independent Online
On ancient maps, this part of Spain's north-western region, Galicia, was named Finistierra. Mariners thought that west of the rias, the rocky inlets swept by incessant drenching winds, was literally the end of the earth: if you were foolish enough to sail on, you would plunge over the edge into the abyss.

Navigating these waters remains a hazardous business - but for some, a spectacularly profitable one. For this backward and remote corner of Europe has within a few years become a principal entry point for cocaine from Colombia's drug cartels. Despite Spain's efforts to control the traffic, the authorities admit that around 90 per cent slips through undetected.

"The overwhelming majority of cocaine entering Europe comes by sea," says the region's customs authority. "Only a small fraction of total supply is smuggled through airports. And up to now, most of it has come through Galicia. This region, because of its geography and its seafaring, smuggling tradition, provides ideal conditions for drug trafficking."

A couple of weeks ago, customs officials boarded a rusty old trawler, the Anita, some 60 miles off the Galician coast near Vigo and seized more than a ton of cocaine. They arrested the crew of eight and rounded up 11 people around Vilagarcia, including Jose Santorum, O Can ("The Dog") - said to be Galicia's top drug boss. They claimed they had dismantled the region's main cocaine-trafficking mafia.

But few in the rias believe this will stop the lucrative trade. The networks just regroup, they say, second-ranking clan members take over, and everything continues as before. "We are winning a few battles, but are far from winning the war," says Joaquin Gago, Vilagarcia's socialist mayor. "Too many people are involved, with too many economic interests at stake."

"Walter" - as he asked to be known - arranged to meet me in a coffee bar in Vilagarcia's main square. His gaze raked a clutch of elderly ladies with sculpted coiffures and he suggested we step into his Mercedes. Dark- haired, about 40, and with a serious look, he wore a fat gold ring on one hand, a diamond on the other, a gold identity bracelet on his wrist and a gold chain round his neck.

I asked how the deals were set up. "A group of people here organise a boat - which isn't difficult with so much of the fishing fleet laid up - and collect money, fuel and food for the voyage. You never get paid up front.

"They arrive in the Caribbean and the Colombians bring the merchandise to the boat by launch, or drop it from the air attached to floats into the sea nearby. It's all arranged by phone or radio. The boat returns to Galicia, waits off shore for fast launches or little fishing boats to come from the ria to pick up the merchandise, and it's stashed away for collection."

Where exactly? "Underground hiding places, pits dug in little lanes or under piles of firewood in someone's back garden. Then the Colombians send someone from Madrid to collect it in their station wagon. They take their cut, sell it on and remit the profits to Colombia in dollars, and the rest is shared among the sailors and the distributors at this end who pass it on to traders from all over Europe."

"The English have good contacts here," he added. "The arrangements are made in Malaga by Brits from Gibraltar, who send scruffy-looking guys up here in their camper vans who take it straight across the Channel to London or Manchester. No point trying to dodge British customs in a car like this. Too suspicious."

The trade has been building up since the 1980s, pushed by the Colombians' need for alternatives to the heavily controlled North American market, and pulled by Europe-wide demand - increasingly from eastern Europe. The price reflects the market's buoyancy. Cocaine bought for pounds 1,000 per kilo in Colombia goes for pounds 20,000 per kilo in Galicia, he says.

Things have changed since local tobacco smugglers - who were revered as Robin Hood figures - turned to more profitable cocaine in the 1980s. For one thing, existing clan rivalry has escalated into violence.

We are sitting in an ice-cream parlour in the village of Cambados a few miles along the coast from Vilagarcia. Walter tells me how, in May last year, three Colombian hired assassins shot dead the clan leader, Manuel Baulo, just down the road, for allegedly grassing to the police on a rival clan, the mighty Charlines - he writes the name on a flimsy paper napkin, then rolls the paper in his fingertips into a tiny ball and tosses it into the ashtray.

And of how the decomposed bodies of two low-ranking dealers who failed to deliver were found after a year in a septic tank, while a third possibly lies under the recently constructed Vigo motorway.

Then there is astonishing evidence of swiftly achieved riches in a region so poor that for generations men have emigrated and where the only local industry, fish canning, is in crisis. We're in his Ford now, a different mobile phone wedged at his elbow. As we swish along winding country lanes, lights from luxury restaurants gleam lustrously through the slanting Atlantic drizzle. "They're washing machines," he says. "Cover operations for laundering drug money."

Club after club, bar after bar, the JR, the Europa, the Liberty, the Zoo, the Belle Epoque, slide past. Vast petrol stations worthy of the M4 face each other across a sleepy interchange between one hamlet and another. They seem all but deserted, like the Eden, with its acreage of plastic grass, where a dour grey-haired local slouches in his yellow windcheater with a young woman, distracted and fretful, who - to judge by her accent and her fragile mulatta beauty - seems Colombian or Central American.

We drive to the village of Vilanova de Arousa, past its tiny harbour into a neighbourhood of mansions of staggering luxury, sprouting fat radio antennae behind spiked granite walls, all built in the last few years, some still under construction. "Where do they get the money for these kind of houses?" asks Walter. "This is a poor community. The climate's hardly conducive to luxury tourism. The owner of that one is 27 years old and can barely read."

Mayor Gago says Vilagarcia offers lots of opportunities for money laundering. "It's easy to disguise it through property development, timber companies, chicken farms, fruit merchants, garages. Proof? If we had proof we'd take legal action, but my feeling is the building and commercial developments round here are funded by capital from illegal activities. How else could they make such fortunes?"

Soon everyone will be seeking part of the action, including the politicians and the police, reckons Walter. "Why sweat for 20 years when you can make a big deal and get rich overnight, they'll think. But the country will be the poorer."