Loan sharks still making a killing

With banks more reluctant than ever to lend money, growing numbers of people are resorting to the age-old tradition of moneylenders

The first lesson of dealing with loan sharks is that you don't find them; they find you.

Which explains Antonio Santiago Cortés' reticence when contacted by telephone for this story: "Who are you? How do you know about me? Who sent you?"

The 61-year-old, known simply as Antonio the lender, and from a family that has been in the loan game for four generations - his two sons are continuing the business - likes to keep a low profile. He operates from his large, detached house in the outskirts of Granada, and spends the mornings talking to his clients by phone, visiting the bank or simply taking a walk round his local square. In the afternoons he returns home, where most days he receives packages from those in his debt.

"I am desperate; I have no choice. I know who I am dealing with"
"There is this ridiculous idea that lenders like me go round breaking legs, or killing people"

Cortés charges 10 percent interest per month on loans that tend to amount to 10,000 euros. The interest on the loan is paid every 30 days until the debtor repays the amount in full by an agreed date. Any delay on that date means a 10-percent surcharge.

"There is this ridiculous idea that lenders like me go round breaking legs, or killing people," says Cortés. "I have never laid a finger on anybody. The secret of success in this game is knowing who to lend to."

Client: Look, Antonio, the other bank has let me down. I'm furious. I can't get into any more debt. I'm going to have to let you have the garage.

Cortés: Okay.

Client: The banks are not helping me out here.

Cortés: And what about the months that you owe me, are you going to pay me that back bit by bit?

Client: Yes, bit by bit. Give me time.

Cortés. What do you take me for? You'll never pay that money back. I know you.

Client: I will. Trust me.

Cortés: I know what you Argentineans are like. I swear. Shall I tell you something that I have never told anybody? My family has been in the money-lending game for five generations. My grandfather started this, and my grandchildren are now in the game. But my grandfather told me never to lend money to Argentineans...

The Civil Guard recorded that conversation as part of an investigation into allegations of extortion and fraud, but Cortés insists that he is no criminal, and actually performs a useful public service. "I am a social benefactor," he says standing in the entrance to his garage. Smartly dressed in jacket and tie, he has just stepped out of a large German car. "Thanks to me, something like 40 or 50 businessmen have avoided bankruptcy, and are able to provide for their families." He says that he is in a hurry, and takes my phone number, saying he will call to set up a meeting in Madrid a few days later. He never calls.

The internet is awash with advertisements placed by people desperately looking for a loan, at any cost. And people like Cortés provide those loans. A contract is drawn up before a notary public laying out the repayment conditions, with interest rates considerably higher than those offered by banks. But the men and women who require Cortés' services have long since been refused credit by the banks.

"Up to 60,000 euros, quickly. With identity card and property as collateral, loans can be arranged within 48 hours," reads a typical advertisement. "Personal loans from between 1,000 and 6,000 euros. Bring your car and we'll assess how much we can give you," reads another.

For some men and women who have lost everything, there is only one resource left. "My life is my guarantee," reads the online advertisement placed by somebody calling himself Juan Carlos. Nobody answered his plea. He had fled Madrid where he owed money, and was trying to make a new life for himself in Cádiz. He had heard that a local loan shark could be contacted via a bar in the southern port city. After mentioning to the woman serving behind the counter that he was looking to borrow money, he was eventually given a cellphone number on a scrap of paper.

Juan Carlos says that the man who answered the phone initially denied knowing anything about loans, although he didn't hang up. "Okay, give me a few days to think about it," he eventually conceded.

Juan Carlos says that he is aware of the risk he is taking by borrowing from a loan shark. "I am desperate; I have no choice. I know who I am dealing with. If this guy lends me money, I know that I will have to repay it, one way or the other. I'm not afraid of what might happen to me; I have to get out of this jam."

Armando, a Granada-based businessman with a network of slot-machines, borrowed 60,000 euros from Cortés. He refuses to discuss the terms, but says that there were no witnesses. On one occasion, after failing to meet a payment, he returned from Cortés' house barefoot.

After three years, Armando owed Cortés 400,000 euros. Eventually, he ended up paying him back 4.7 million in cash and properties. He had even signed a life insurance policy with Cortés as beneficiary. Cortés' family, known locally as "The Dolls," followed Armando and his family everywhere, even to the gates of his children's school.

Armando's business, which had once generated up to 70,000 a month in profits, was going downhill, and he was finding it impossible to borrow money. At the same time, he was increasingly ensnared by Cortés and his family. "I was psychologically and economically finished. I was terrified every time Antonio called," he says.

He eventually took the matter to the police and was forced to go into hiding. With generations of experience and knowledge behind him, Cortés knows every trick in the book, and for the moment, although the police regularly tap his phone and keep him under surveillance, he knows that he is safe from prosecution.

"I don't care what the police or anybody else thinks. I have nothing to hide. I am not involved in drugs, nor arms trafficking, or anything like that. What I do is lend people money. I am a benefactor," he maintains.

Armando, a businessman, was ruined after dealing with a moneylender.
Armando, a businessman, was ruined after dealing with a moneylender.PEPE MARÍN ZARZA
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