DRUGS

Spain’s invisible multi-million-euro marijuana business

Criminal groups are paying as much as €5,000 per harvest to low-income families who agree to grow the drug in their homes

The owners of a paint company in Valdemoro (Madrid) that went bankrupt during the crisis, young people who lost their jobs, and working-class folk who saw their incomes drop and were afraid they wouldn’t have enough to support their families. These are some of the kinds of people who have entered the marijuana business in the last four years, according to the Spanish Civil Guard.

During this time, the hauls of this “soft drug” have rocketed in Spain, with raids carried out almost weekly. Of the nearly 20,000 arrests for drug trafficking made in the country each year, more than half are cannabis-related and almost 70% of the detainees are Spanish, according to official statistics.

Rooms, garages, sheds, storage rooms, attics, small boats, trucks and motorhomes are all ideal for growing marijuana under lights

Last week’s so-called “Operation Mocy,” involving more than 500 Civil Guard officers, resulted in 69 raids and 76 arrests in the provinces of Granada, Málaga, Cádiz and Valencia. The majority of those picked up by the police lived in modest homes or social housing in the municipality of Pinos Puente, 16 kilometers from Granada. In the neighborhood of Las Flores, women in house robes and slippers and sleepy-looking youths in jeans were led out of their homes in handcuffs.

Operation Mocy was just one of dozens of raids carried out by the police this year. From 2013, when records began, to 2018, hauls of marijuana plants have soared by almost 600% – from 175,000 to nearly one million plants, according to the Interior Ministry. “It has been rising progressively, with a significant spike in 2017 and a steady upwards trend since then,” according to investigators from both the National Police and the Civil Guard. “In the last year alone, it has risen by 90%.”

In terms of kilograms seized, the figure has risen from 15,174 in 2014 to 37,220 in 2018, according to data from the Intelligence Center against Terrorism and Organized Crime (CITCO).

The illegal marijuana business has expanded in the wake of the economic crisis and taken hold with help from criminal organizations that operate in Spain. Investigators note that these groups “view marijuana as an easy business.” Investment requirements are low: between €10,000 and €30,000 for an indoor setup, depending on its size. The returns, on the other hand, are significant: in the UK, for example, a kilogram of marijuana goes for €4,000. On top of this, the risks are minimal, with criminal penalties ranging from one to three years in prison and the likelihood of a suspended sentence for those with no prior record. Rooms, garages, sheds, storage rooms, attics, small boats, trucks and motorhomes are all ideal for growing marijuana under lights.

The criminal gangs have seen a golden opportunity in the homes of low-income families. “They show up and set up everything for them – the plants, the electrical wiring, the lights – and they leave a handbook with step-by-step instructions on how to care for the plants, as if it were written for dummies,” says a spokesman for the Civil Guard’s drug division. “They move in for the harvest – between five and 20 kilograms, three or four times a year – and pay families the agreed amount, which is around €5,000 per harvest. It works almost like a big cooperative of small producers; they collect and send the goods to Europe: Germany, England, France, Poland, Estonia, Latvia...”

A way of life

While there are larger plantations in more isolated rural areas of Toledo, Catalonia, Extremadura and Alicante, not to mention some greenhouses in Almeria, the new trend has resulted in a proliferation of small growers throughout the southern half of Spain, with a higher concentration in provinces such as Granada, according to the cannabis plant distribution map drawn up by the Interior Ministry.

In some villages, it has become a way of life for residents seeking to boost their low incomes as well as for those – particularly young people – who view it as an easy and low-risk way of making a quick buck, according to the experts.

The drug gangs leave a handbook with step-by-step instructions on how to care for the plants

The investment is small and practically pays off after the first harvest. The electricity for the grow lights that are kept on 24/7 is usually siphoned off from a neighboring power line – often providing a clue to the whereabouts of plantations. There have been instances of entire populations being left without electricity due to the high consumption needed for the lamps.

According to one Civil Guard officer who has worked in this field for 18 years, once people get a taste of the easy money involved in growing marijuana, they find it hard to give it up. “This is adversely affecting the social fabric in some communities, where people who once held decent jobs are now dedicating their lives to growing marijuana,” he says.

“It is becoming like Campo de Gibraltar, but much more hidden,” he adds, alluding to an area in Cádiz province where drug gangs have been operating for years. “The former store hashish in their homes while in this case, people take care of marijuana plants. It’s not just a public health issue, it’s also about the violence attached to it, because anyone who has something of value will often use weapons to defend it.”

The violence

After last week’s raid in Pinos Puente, where the smell of marijuana hangs in the air around every corner, nobody in town is willing to talk about the underground economy that keeps many families afloat. Just four days after the sting, a man was shot to death here in what the Civil Guard has described as a settling of scores.

“At another time, I would have arranged for you to talk to a drug trafficker and you would have gotten more insights,” says one marijuana distributor in Granada. “But with all the police pressure on them at the moment, it’s just not possible. No one, least of all me, can risk even asking them. If they are arrested one or two months down the line for whatever reason, we’ll be the ones to blame. And I assure you that we would end up paying for it.”

Faced with the clandestine nature of a business that continues to expand in Spain due to “great demand” in Europe, the police’s strategy consists of organizing large raids to reduce the general feeling of impunity. “It is a socially accepted drug,” says a police source. “There is constant talk of its curative properties and other countries are moving towards legalization. Those involved in the business are aware of that. They know that there is unlikely to be either criminal or moral recrimination, and the economic temptation is huge.”

Politicians growing dope

In the province of Granada, there have been cases of politicians getting arrested for growing the drug. In the small village of Pampaneira, in the Alpujarras region of Granada, a Socialist Party (PSOE) councilor resigned over a year-and-a-half ago after the Civil Guard found 355 plants on his property. And the deputy mayor of El Valle, Manuel Palma of the Popular Party (PP), was held on similar charges. The National Police arrested him last summer after finding 256 marijuana plants inside a house with two grow rooms perfectly set up for cultivation.

But the growers are only the first link in the chain. “Normally, there are go-betweens for the mafias, people who have contacts with distributors who, in turn, have different small suppliers; it works like a multinational,” explains a spokesman for the Civil Guard. “They ask for so many kilos and someone is in charge of collecting them and sending them where they need to go, sometimes using ordinary couriers with the goods wrapped in towels and packed as merchandise, like the Chinese used to do.”

The Chinese players

The arrival of the Chinese mafias onto the marijuana scene has also meant major growth in the sector. “The Chinese are mainly buyers and distributors,” says one police officer who specializes in marijuana trafficking. “They have a reputation for always having money, being good payers and paying in cash. They are a producer’s dream. That’s why they have cornered a share of the market.”

According to CITCO data, it has taken just four years for Spain to become the third largest producer and exporter of marijuana in Europe, trailing only behind Albania and Italy. Outside of Europe, Mexico and the United States are the countries with the biggest marijuana seizures.

“What is happening is similar to the growth of intensive greenhouse agriculture in Almería,” says an expert. “We live in a society in which the big lobbies for the cannabis companies, some of which are even listed on the stock exchange, are pushing for legalization and promoting a kind image of a ‘natural’ drug that is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and where modifications and genetic hybrids have made its THC – the psychoactive component – soar from 2% to 30% with all the risks this entails for the mental health of the consumer. Besides, as we have seen, legalization always comes with a black market.”

English version by Heather Galloway.