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Revealed: the violent currents of timeshare island

SIX BRITONS were arrested and charged with attempted murder, threats and intimidation on the Spanish holiday island of Tenerife earlier this month. The case offers a rare glimpse into the turbid world of timeshare sales, a secretive multi-million-pound business about which even Spanish security forces admit they are in the dark.

According to police, six men armed with baseball bats attacked two Lebanese brothers, Mohammad and Hassan Derbah, who run the Colonia Club timeshare company in Tenerife's popular southern resort of Playa de las Americas. The Spanish authorities say the six had been contracted as security guards by another company to police the activities of their own timeshare touts and prevent them being poached by competitors.

In a brave breach of the omerta that pervades this shadowy but hugely profitable activity, a number of salesmen from the company complained to the paramilitary Civil Guard about company goon squads who threatened them with violence should they be tempted to leave and work for a rival company.

"A Civil Guard surveillance operation found that [the company] organised a group of security guards ostensibly to protect their customers and their salesmen, but whose real purpose was to threaten them [the salesmen] and keep them under their control," official Spanish security sources said this week. In the course of investigating these complaints, Civil Guards say they saw the murder attempt on 10 July and then made arrests. The men were held for 48 hours, charged, then released and ordered to report to police every two weeks.

Timeshare, in which purchasers buy a week or fortnight a year in a holiday property without having any title to the property itself, took off in the mid-1980s, pioneered by Birmingham-born John Palmer. Tenerife's rocky southern coastline, with its year-round sunshine, was swiftly covered with timeshare apartment complexes and equipped with beaches made from imported African sand. The barren little settlement of Playa de las Americas boomed to become one of Britain's top tourist destinations.

Nicknamed Goldfinger for his involvement in the 1983 Brinks-Mat robbery in which gold bars worth pounds 26m were stolen near Heathrow, Mr Palmer has lived in Tenerife since 1985. Acquitted in 1987 of handling stolen bullion, he went on to create a timeshare empire worth millions and is listed among Britain's richest men.

But it is now much less easy to make money in the timeshare business. The buccaneering days when unscrupulous touts accosted tourists in the street and gave them the hard sell, pressuring them to deposit huge sums within hours, are gone. The market is saturated: the beachside land is now largely built upon, and street sales and other "sharp" techniques are banned. Timeshare companies now conduct their pitch in closely guarded complexes and hotels, offering gifts and other inducements to bring in the punters.

"It's an extremely competitive world, with huge commercial interests at play," an official source said. "A young timeshare salesman can earn up to a million pesetas [pounds 4,000] a day. Imagine the money the company makes. The role of the salesman is crucial. It's a closed world even to the security forces, it organises itself and largely polices itself, so that complaints are rarely made public. There is a bitter struggle between timeshare companies that lies behind this latest violence."