Inside the drug capital of Spain – and the 'gateway' for illicit substances entering the EU

In an area where youth unemployment is as high as 80 per cent, trafficking offers young people an opportunity to make thousands of euros a day

Alasdair Fotheringham
La Línea de la Concepción
Sunday 25 February 2018 20:54 GMT
La Línea, seen here in the foreground with the Rock of Gibraltar behind, has lost three generations of young people to drug trafficking, according to Francisco Mena
La Línea, seen here in the foreground with the Rock of Gibraltar behind, has lost three generations of young people to drug trafficking, according to Francisco Mena

Last Sunday in the seaport of La Línea de la Concepción the annual carnival finally ended – and the crowds in the centre of the Spanish town, many of them amateur groups of singers in fancy dress, headed home.

Just a few weeks earlier, though, La Línea had been witness to a far more sinister type of street theatre, when 20 alleged drug smugglers and their accomplices stormed into the local hospital to remove an injured trafficker from custody. A few days later the judge investigating the assault was surrounded and intimidated by a group of 40 thugs, some of whom were said to be participants in the hospital raid.

These incidents were the latest high-profile show of strength by workers for La Línea’s most notorious and, by many accounts, most successful group of employers: drug traffickers. “The province of Cadiz” – where La Línea is situated – “ is the entry point for the greatest quantity of illegal drugs in the whole of the EU,” claims Francisco Mena, the province’s longstanding head of an umbrella group for various anti-drugs associations.

Over the years, Mr Mena has witnessed how a trade based on high-speed power boats, plying between Africa and Europe, bearing loads of up to 1,200 kilos of hashish, has proliferated dramatically. “We’re a handful of kilometres away here from one of the world’s top two producers of hashish [Morocco],” Mr Mena says – the highest according to the UN 2017 World Drug Report – “and we estimate only between 10 to 15 per cent of the drugs smuggled through here are seized by the authorities”.

Last year was, Mr Mena says, “possibly the worst ever in the history of drug trafficking here”. He cites a landmark incident last April when upward of 100 traffickers stoned police on a beach trying to confiscate a speedboat as the point when the smugglers lost “respect for the authorities, and gained a new sense of impunity”.

The confiscation by local police of 145,372 kilos of hashish in 2017, a 45 per cent increase on 2016, sounds promising – but the figure is actually 27 per cent lower than in 2015. Furthermore, assuming unofficial police estimates of up to 10 speedboats operating every night are roughly correct, it would take less than one month for those losses to be replenished. And with some 30 gangs, each with roughly 100 members, operating in La Línea, a seller would not be hard to find.

Smuggling has long formed part of the area’s history. “After the Spanish Civil War we’d get medicines from Gibraltar, mostly penicillin,” says a local civil servant. “Later it’d be whisky and tobacco, and nice biscuits from Holland, too.”

But the Dutch cookies from Gibraltar have long since given way to hashish imports from Morocco, a trade that increased enormously during Spain’s economic recession. Cadiz has Spain’s highest unemployment rate, and in La Línea it still stands at 33 per cent, whilst among the youth of La Atunara, the former fishermen’s district where many traffickers operate their powerboats, it’s said to be as high as 80 per cent. Given that the poorest paid member of a gang, a police look-out, will earn around €1,000 for a day’s work, whilst the top earners, speedboat drivers, will make up to €60,000 for a single trip, the economic temptations are obvious.

Although there is widespread praise, including from Mr Mena, for the courage and tenacity shown by police in battling the trade, it’s no secret they are badly undermanned. Recently one local trade union claimed 67 new officers were needed in La Línea for patrols and border work. However, in the latest round of job offers, only two vacancies were made available.

Furthermore, as Mr Mena points out, the general tolerance level towards dealing is slightly higher than it might be because “people know the drugs go elsewhere. If you knew the guy living opposite was dealing to your kids, you’re capable of going over and killing him.”

“What people don’t get, though, is the damage to La Línea’s image that the trafficking has produced.”

Yet anybody visiting La Línea would be surprised at how normal it looks. Every evening, despite strong Atlantic breezes whipping through its streets, the smart-looking pedestrianised city centre bustles with crowds of Spanish families. But the impression is skin-deep. On a mid-morning visit to the city’s tourist office, for example, the building and its surroundings are eerily deserted, with taped flamenco music playing in exhibition rooms that contain nothing but reams of untouched English-speaking newspapers and tourist brochures.

Residents confirm the smuggling’s hidden social effects are amongst the most devastating. “People say, wrongly, this city is a miniature version of Colombia,” claims one resident. “I can go for a walk through La Atunara and I’ve never had a single problem.”

“But the trafficking has got completely out of control, and the consequences for young people are terrible. How can I tell my son he has to get up at 6am to do a normal job paying €900 a month when there’s so much easy money floating around?”

She is so afraid her teenage son could get sucked into the drugs trade she will not allow him to go out at night. Francisco Mena says “three generations of young people in La Línea who couldn’t find a job have been lost to the drug trafficking world”.

There is concern, too, at the increasingly violent face-offs between police and traffickers.

Last year a policeman died when a smuggler he was chasing caused an accident. In the traffickers’ convoys of stolen Landcruisers, one is present purely to ram any police patrol vehicles that try to stop them. Police sources also say smugglers will cause accidents, too, to keep them busy when there’s a shipment. “My sister says there’s no way she’d shout any more at anybody driving who cut her up in traffic,” reflects the civil servant. “It’s too risky.”

Socially, the traffickers have grown to consider themselves a cut above the rest, too. La Línea’s mayor, Juan Franco, told El País: “They think they’re the nobility, they have marriages of convenience” both to cement alliances and extend the smuggling omerta. Other tactics to ensure silence are said to be more brutal: “If they think they can intimidate a judge, how would they behave to a shopkeeper who blabbed?” says one local. “They’d burn down his shop.”

Given the gravity of the situation, Spain’s interior minister Juan Manuel Zoido has promised more police reinforcements. But the last big increase in police numbers, 150 last summer, proved only temporary, with officers redeployed to Catalonia in October to handle the independence crisis.

The police are not the only ones to leave. “My son works in Malaga and he doesn’t want to come back ever,” says the resident. “What police officer or doctor or teacher would want to work here when so many want to quit?” asks Mr Mena.

But Mr Mena refuses to accept La Línea has reached “a point of no return”, pointing to the 1990s when “there was a heroin epidemic, and for a year you couldn’t move for police in the city, and it was sorted out”. He believes that social education programmes and creating legal job opportunities are the best long-term solution “because only cracking down in La Línea with police, the problem will just shift to [nearby] Algeciras”.

“There has to be a concerted effort by the authorities in all areas, and that includes the EU,” says Mr Mena. “Because the drugs coming in here are the drugs consumed by people across Europe.”

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