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Costa del Sol's image is tarnished by lead

Spain's Costa del Sol, that glamorous haven for criminals on the run, has shown its darker side, with four underworld shoot-outs in just over a month. Following the assassination last weekend of a French couple by hooded gunmen, the Costa del Crime is being dubbed the Costa del Plomo (Lead), and glitzy Marbella, the Miami of Europe.

Madrid authorities sprang into action to combat what they believe is a network of international crime and violence linked to money-laundering, drug-trafficking and clan warfare, reminiscent of the era of Al Capone.

The Interior Minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, last week set up a string of anti-mafia police action squads along the coast from Estepona to Almeria, centred on a 20-strong elite unit based in Marbella.

Police have long suspected that international criminal organisations have been quietly decamping from traditional haunts in Marseilles and Palermo to instal themselves in Marbella, alongside Middle Eastern and Russian multi-millionaires whose flamboyantly extravagant fortunes have cascaded into the town.

"We want to control the arrival of these criminal gangs in the Costa del Sol, watch their operations and detain them. We have launched a preventive and surgical campaign. But we cannot create a police state," Jorge Cabezas, the regional governor of the provincial capital, Malaga, said this week.

Police complain that the contest is as unequal as that between David and Goliath. They say they are hopelessly outsmarted by 200 criminal gangs with bottomless purses, yachts and powerful vehicles, while their investigations are stymied by something as mundane as the lack of a translator.

"What's the use of tapping suspects' telephones when we can't understand what the fuck they are saying?" railed an exasperated policeman last week. He was referring to two Bulgarians arrested in connection with the death last month of Francisco Javier Bocanegra, a well-known Marbella lawyer.

He was found in his luxury Marbella home with his hands and feet tied and his face beaten to a pulp.

The two suspects, linked to a male-prostitution ring, drove away in the victim's car and were seized last Tuesday about to board a plane leaving Spain.

On 5 October, a French couple, Jacques Rene Grangeon and Catherine Castagna, were riddled with 27 machine-gun shots and left lying in their bloodsoaked front room.

The couple had rented a pounds 5,000-a-month mansion on Marbella's "Golden Mile" near a palace belonging to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

Police suspected Grangeon of cocaine and hashish trafficking on a gigantic scale. The massacre, a blizzard of bullets in the middle of the night, was the work of French hit-men, police reckoned.

A Marbella policeman, Juan Alameda, was shot three days earlier. His suspected killer is a Dutchman known to police as a striptease performer and who is wanted for robbery in The Netherlands.

Marbella, none the less, claims to be one of the safest spots on the coast. The right-wing mayor, Jesus Gil, who has more than doubled police strength during five years in office, has cleared the streets of drug- pushers, pick-pockets and bag-snatchers.

He plays down the recent carnage as "isolated incidents that could happen anywhere".

Fearful that bullets might scare off the torrent of money gushing into his town, Mr Gil insists Marbella is a haven of peace and sunshine. But events suggest that the eradication of petty street crime has not prevented high-flying criminal violence from flourishing behind closed security gates and barbed-wire fences.