As I strolled around Fuengirola, a spot that Spanish police rank with Marbella and Estepona as a prime haunt for international criminal gangs, I found that my reflex action of clutching my bag, watching for loiterers poised to squirt ketchup down my back to distract my attention, suddenly felt unnecessary.
Foreign residents here tell me that what they most like about their adopted homeland - apart from the sunshine, of course - is their overwhelming sense of safety. Joan, a British woman with a detached house outside Fuengirola, confessed: "I've been living here for 35 years and I feel safer here than in Britain, even though I live on my own."
Pickpockets, bag snatchers and drug pushers have been swept off the streets of the Costa del Sol by assiduous police at the behest of right-wing councils keen to keep their British, Scandinavian, German and Dutch residents sweet. But this sense of security, so comforting to law-abiding and prosperous northern Europeans, is obviously equally attractive to big-time criminals, for whom "protection" is particularly precious.
Fuengirola's reputation as a bolthole for those avoiding the attention of the British authorities was established by the flamboyant bank robber Ronnie Knight, who courted publicity in the 1970s and 1980s, hobnobbing with journalists, running an Indian restaurant - a good one - and even opening a bar and nightclub, R Knights, behind a big Fuengirola hotel.
Costa criminals these days are a different breed. They are not seeking to blow the proceeds of bank raids in the most enjoyable and lucrative way they can. Today's villain is more interested in orchestrating international drug shipments and the financial wizardry to launder the cash that such traffic generates. Discretion is his watchword.
You may still see old-style bad boys hanging out conspicuously in their white shellsuits and gold chains, waggling mobile phones and nodding and winking as if setting up some big deal. "But they're just a throwback to the old days," one British Fuengirola local told me. "They don't count for anything any more."
The fate of R Knights illustrates the change of style. Taken over by a group of Moroccans, the establishment was renamed MoonBar and closed down last year, suspected of laundering hashish money. The site is destined for redevelopment in one of the town's countless high-rise projects - a boom stimulated by the need for a more streamlined way of laundering the astronomical sums now in play.
Second-generation bad hats stay in the shadows, buttressed by respect and bodyguards. Patrick Adams, the eldest of the Adams brothers, a north London family linked to crime, moved to Sierrazuela on the hilly outskirts of Fuengirola some years back after he was acquitted of involvement in a pounds 26m cannabis deal in Britain. You would not get him opening his own bar. Mr Adams prefers Gilligan's, a modest windowless drinking club on the road to Mijas, which offers live racing via satellite television and Guinness to carefully selected guests. If you are not on the list you get no farther than the heavy metal doors. His two children go to a prosperous international school nearby, and he and his wife live in a house with high whitewashed walls covered with bougainvillea and bristling with security cameras, buzzers and infrared body detectors.
Local police have him in their sights, and compiled a surveillance report about him in 1995, but so far in his discreet exile he has not put a foot wrong. Mr Adams and his like blend seamlessly with this quietly comfortable expatriate community, where you can get the best full English breakfast in Spain, where David's Bookshop prominently displays Sir Alex Ferguson's autobiography and where, in the tacit assumption that most Brits living here are probably running from something, it is customary to ask no questions.
This makes policing difficult, and British and Spanish police beefed up their operations on the coast recently, setting up special units against drugs and organised crime. These Udico squads, orchestrated from Malaga just down the road, monitor suspects "even though they don't commit any crimes", a spokesman told me. Skilled in foreign languages and phone tapping, they are ready to pounce on those suspected of drug trafficking, money laundering or - increasingly - outbursts of gang violence, as clan wars are settled in methods reminiscent of the era of Al Capone.
The biggest headache for the money launderers is the single European currency: if they do not exchange their pesetas for euros by 30 June 2002, they face the horrible prospect of seeing their banknotes become worthless. After the deadline, they will have to explain the provenance of cash over the equivalent of pounds 10,000. Spain is awash with undeclared "black" funds - between 20 and 30 per cent of the economy, one of the highest proportions in Europe. So, invest in property now, the message runs, re-sell for euros in a few years and, hey presto, a legitimate business transaction.
Hence the buzz of interest around Fuengirola's estate agents, administering a property boom that my friend Joanna, who has lived round here for eight years, describes as "incredible". Prices, she says, are skyrocketing. Curious, I join a scrum of 20 in one estate office to hear the harassed Englishman behind the counter tell a couple: "I'm sorry, I can't even arrange an appointment to view that property, I'm booked up all this week."
On Fuengirola's beachfront, a red-tiled shellfish bar is condemned to give way to "Luxury apartments, work begins October", according to the hoarding slapped on its faded striped awning. Next door, eight huge storeys of concrete and steel noisily rise from scaffolding: the architect's illustration promises 15. Cranes criss-cross the sky, and poolside conversations are drowned by mechanical drills and the shouts of workmen, even during the siesta.
But locals are mostly as unaffected by this influx of foreign money as they were by the previous one - until they find the secluded villa on which they had set their heart snatched from their grasp by a mysterious cash buyer.Reuse content