Two men have their hands tied behind their backs. Two more men are beating them up. It’s the morning of May 3 and a worker at La Amargacena industrial park, Córdoba, walks into a warehouse in search of a forklift. Instead, he finds this. The attackers turn on the newcomer and tie him up as well. There are more blows and screams, and then the assailants suddenly disappear. The employee calls the police to report the attack, but in the meantime the two victims have also made their getaway.
It was not the only alert received by the Córdoba police precinct that morning. Almost simultaneously, another caller reported an attempted theft at another warehouse nearby. It was there that law enforcement officers made an historic discovery: the largest hashish shipment ever seized in Spain; 52.6 metric tons. The police immediately connected the dots and realized that both events were related. It was the beginning of an operation to bust two major drug rings operating out of Seville. Four detainees are already in prison, but more arrests are expected in the coming days.
The discovery came just one day after the Civil Guard had broken the previous record after seizing 32 tons of hashish in the port of Algeciras, and also found 13,000 marijuana plants growing on an estate in Málaga.
Six days after finding that massive shipment, another 291 kilos of hashish were discovered inside a third warehouse. The following day, 10 more tons turned up inside two trucks in a fourth warehouse.
32 tons concealed among the melons
Drug hauls at the port of Algeciras (Cádiz) are a regular occurrence. But when 32 tons of hashish turned up among the melons inside a truck going from Morocco to France last week, Civil Guard officers were perplexed.
The driver was arrested and a few days later Moroccan authorities detained three people in the port of Tangier, from where the shipment had left on its way to Perpignan. The suspects included a police officer and a customs official, news agency Efe reported.
During the second half of 2012, statistics had reflected a drop in drug confiscations in trucks. Every day, around 400 lorries cross the port of Algeciras; of these, around half may be inspected visually by agents with trained dogs, which can smell through the plastic bags used to carry the hashish. About a tenth of the trucks may have their merchandise scanned.
During these inspections, the driver’s attitude provides vital clues to investigators, as do the distribution of the boxes and any detail that may seem suspicious, from the transport company to the cities of origin or destination, and the frequency of transport. The drug is always concealed behind screens. “Even one’s agility opening the boxes matters,” says a source at the Civil Guard.
These findings reveal an unknown side to Córdoba as the logistics base for drug exports to Europe. But police are also puzzled by the fact that all the shipments should be concealed so close to one another.
“It goes against the logic of trafficking to accumulate such quantities in one place. The idea is to keep it for the shortest time possible and ship it out again. You have to be pretty stupid to do this,” said police sources familiar with the case.
The explanation might lie in an unexpected distribution problem for the gang, which is made up of two families from Seville. One of them is well-known to the police, as its members used to own a transportation company and were found with a ton of drugs on the French border some years ago.
Now, Córdoba has become the new Spanish base for storing and shipping Moroccan hashish to northern Europe, particularly Germany and the Netherlands. The never-ending stream of trucks coming in from Morocco used to stop in Seville, but the gang decided to move the business to the less suspicious city of Córdoba to throw off investigators.
The industrial park of La Amargacena could not be better situated. It is right next to the A-4 motorway, with direct links to Málaga, Seville, Cádiz and Huelva on the southbound lane, and to Madrid and the rest of the country on the northbound side. The daily bustle at the site, with vehicles of all sizes going in and out, affords the perfect cover.
“All three warehouses were rented out to different owners,” said police sources. The information contained in the leases helped with at least one of the arrests. All of the suspects hail from Seville, although two of them were arrested in Almonte, Huelva. What role did these warehouses play? All lines of investigation are still open, but police think the first one, where a worker walked into the beating, might have served as a “store” for retail drug sales. The second one, where the huge shipment was found, might be the “general warehouse.”
Investigators suspect the attackers were looking for the second warehouse. “It could be an attempt at theft among two rival gangs,” said the same sources. According to this hypothesis, after extracting the information from the bound men, the assaulters climbed into their cars, drove to the second warehouse and attempted to break the door down by ramming their vehicles into it, in what amounted to a failed smash-and-grab raid.
But the witness got himself out of the duct tape he’d been bound in, and called the police. The unit that was initially dispatched to the scene realized this was more than mere theft — there were wrappers on the ground of the type typically used to store drugs, and blood stains. The narcotics unit was also called in. Meanwhile, another worker walked by the second warehouse and saw the damage to the door. The police were informed of this as well.
Nobody at the industrial park suspected they were surrounded by tons of hashish, workers say. “I never saw anything going on there, nothing strange,” says an employee at a nearby scrapyard. La Amargacena is one of the busiest industrial parks in Córdoba. There are hundreds of businesses there, small and large, located next to workshops and warehouses. Its irregular layout, featuring numerous alleyways and backstreets for loading and unloading, makes visibility more complex.
It was in one of those backstreets, concealed behind a row of identical warehouses, that Spain’s largest discovered hashish stash was kept. Investigators believe the market value of the haul could be close to 80 million euros.