The Guadalquivir: a river of drugs

Andalusian waterway is entry point of choice for smugglers bringing hashish from Morocco

Daniel Verdú
Two customs officers on patrol along the Guadalquivir.
Two customs officers on patrol along the Guadalquivir.Juan Carlo Toro

When he reached the beach in Morocco, the speedboat had already been loaded up with 1,500 kilos of hashish. The police had been bribed and the contact in Spain informed. As night fell, he put on waterproof overalls, started the 250 horsepower outboard motors, and set off across the Strait of Gibraltar along with three other men. They say he was one of the best at his game, and he loved what he did: “It’s a great feeling. You get hooked. I would give everything to feel it again,” says Antonio, who piloted boats for drug smugglers for 20 years, and is now retired.

Antonio says he made the same trip around 30 times a year, charging €50,000 each time

They would unload their haul in Huelva, La Linea, and along the Guadalquivir river, on Andalusia’s Atlantic coast, west of Cádiz. Sometimes they would travel as far upriver as Seville. Then they would take the empty boat back to Morocco in the early hours of the morning. They were never caught, not even when a police helicopter chased them a few feet above their heads. They made the same trip around 30 times a year, charging €50,000 each time. Today, he should be a millionaire. But as Antonio admits, he spent it all on drugs and prostitutes: “Easy come, easy go.”

This is how a significant part of the hashish produced in Morocco still comes into Spain. In 2014 alone, 80 percent of the almost 20 tons of hashish confiscated by Spanish authorities was seized along the Guadalquivir river, between the Doñana National Park and Seville.

The area is marshy, offering any number of hiding places for smugglers, and the Civil Guard says the only way it can operate in the area is by helicopter. “Right now, we’re probably not stopping more than 20 percent at the most of what comes in,” says one veteran officer, adding that 90 percent of the around 250 tons of hashish seized in Spain is found in Andalusia. Which is why Antonio preferred the Guadalquivir route.

Who’s who in the hashish trade

The owner. Hashish tends to come from a Moroccan supplier who owns a plantation. He may be the boss of the organization in Spain, or simply the seller.

The pilot. These will earn between €15,000 and €50,000 for each trip, depending on the amount being transported and the distance involved.

The loaders. Young men from the local community who wait on the beach and move the drugs from the launch to a waiting vehicle. They are paid €3,000 each.

The watchmen. Their job is to hang around close to the beach on the lookout for the police. To arouse less suspicion, they are often women or a couple.

The 4x4 driver. They wait on the beach while the vehicle is loaded and then transport the hashish to a warehouse, for which they are paid €5,000.

The guard. Responsible for the drugs while in storage until distribution. "This guy is out of his mind with worry, and armed," says one Civil Guard officer.

The searchers. Local people who flock to the shoreline in search of drugs when news spreads that a launch has overturned at sea. They can sometimes make up to €40,000 reselling drugs.

Now aged 44, Antonio retired two years ago. He had an accident, and says his back can no longer stand the battering it takes piloting an inflatable dinghy at 120km/h across rough seas. These days, he says the majority of drugs are brought into Spanish waters and unloaded on to smaller vessels, often fishing boats 20 kilometers out to sea. The business has become more professional, he says, with better boats and better equipment, including radar.

In Sanlúcar, Cádiz province, almost half the workforce is unemployed. The town is the entry point to an area of wetlands stretching for 100 kilometers from where the Guadalquivir meets the Atlantic. Enrique, dressed in a Real Madrid tracksuit, is aged 25, and has two children. He’s one of the lucky ones with a job: working as a guard at the quayside. He spends the afternoons on the waterfront chatting with friends and local fishermen. He too has worked for the smugglers. “Pure adrenalin,” he says. On one occasion, he and his father loaded a fishing boat out at sea with five tons of hashish. They thought they’d made their fortune, only to be caught by the police and spend the next three years in jail. He says that put him off the drugs trade. He laughs and walks away when asked if he still unloads boats.

It’s not hard to find other young men prepared to take the risk in the bars of Sanlúcar. After all, it’s just two short runs: from the boat to the car waiting by the beach, and from the car to the boat with two packets each weighing 30 kilos. In return, €3,000.

The police have put many of Sanlúcar’s drugs smugglers behind bars: Iván Odero, El Cagalera, and several members of the Pinilla family… But the boats keep on plying their trade each night. A local bar owner says it’s easy to hear the murmur of the motor, and then imagine the wake of the vessel glistening on the surface of the sea. Everybody round here has seen the boats: rubber dinghies that are loaded up out at sea, or motorboats fitted with up to four 250 horsepower outboard engines, which have crossed over from Morocco. Santiago Villalba, the head of the Civil Guard’s customs team in Cádiz, says that not even his fastest boats can catch them, and that sometimes the smugglers make two crossings a night.

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Eduardo Carmona, captain of the Milano II, and a 30-year customs service veteran, remembers the time the pilot of a Moroccan launch gave him the finger after dodging him and speeding off into the night. “It was just over there,” he says, pointing to the marshlands of the Doñana National Park. On another occasion, he caught one who told him what he earned: “€50,000 a night, more than I make in a year.” The Civil Guard patrols the area each day, and also scans it by radar. But officers say their job is getting harder. Carmona says it is only a matter of time before the traffickers start using drones. In the meantime, he admits that it is virtually impossible to detect smugglers among the small fishing boats and leisure craft coming into port each day, what’s more, the traffickers know which areas are covered by radar, making it even more difficult to detect their movements, admits another senior police officer.

Villalba says the structure of the different drug gangs is similar: “They are like companies.” The hashish is usually provided by a Moroccan kingpin (typically the owner of a plantation) with a partner in Spain whose job is to contact a team set up here to collect drugs shipments, take them somewhere safe, look after them, and then distribute them when necessary. Spain is the entry point for 75 percent of the hashish that comes into Europe, attracting buyers from all over the continent.

An aerial view along the Guadalquivir river, where the drug boats travel up as far as Seville.
An aerial view along the Guadalquivir river, where the drug boats travel up as far as Seville.

If the shipment is lost at sea, that is the supplier’s problem. But once it reaches land, if something goes wrong, the local team has to answer. And they do: two young girls were kidnapped during the Civil Guard’s Operation Vuelca, which led to the arrest of 34 members of a gang that stole drugs from other gangs. If hashish goes missing, its loss has to be explained. This typically involves sending a newspaper clipping to Morocco reporting a police seizure. When a boat is overturned at sea, as happened in March, and packets are washed ashore, the supplier sends bogus buyers to the area to locate his goods. All packets are stamped with a mark – a four-leaf clover, the badge of a soccer team, a letter – allowing owners to identify their product. They are easy to identify, and they eventually turn up.

The drugs gangs have established powerful networks in southern Spain, and have eyes and ears everywhere. The crisis has attracted more and more young men to their ranks, who will be deployed to watch the headquarters of the customs unit near Gibraltar and warn when a helicopter takes off. The drug traffickers will halt their activity for the four or five hours it is in the air. “We’re considered the bad guys round here,” says a member of the customs team shortly before take off. Two months earlier, when a helicopter tried to stop two launches dropping their haul off on the beach at Sanlúcar, dozens of local people came out and threw stones at it. The officers aboard fired into the air, but eventually had to withdraw. “This is Comanche territory. They are savages,” says the officer.

From Sanlúcar to Seville: 100km along the Guadalquivir

It’s not much more than 100 kilometers from Sanlúcar, close to the port city of Cádiz, up the Guadalquivir river to Seville, and the route has long been used by drug smugglers, traveling in small vessels.

Every village and town along the way has been involved in some way at some time. In Trebujena, the owner of a riverside bar says he has occasionally come across people hiding from the Civil Guard in the dense reeds.

The river passes by Lebrija, and on to Coria del Río and Isla Mayor, where several drug smugglers have been caught. But some locals say that many in the area continue to make a living from the trade.

It’s 8pm and the customs unit’s helicopter, which two weeks ago caught two boats carrying 2,000 kilos of hashis, takes off. There are two pilots and an observer who operates a thermal camera. We head toward the Strait of Gibraltar. When the team sees a boat, they can swoop down and follow it, forcing the crew to throw their haul overboard, or they can simply give chase, hoping that the vessel’s motor will give out. In the past, officers have fired at the engine, but then one of the crew would respond by leaning over the motor to stop them. Antonio says he tried the trick once, but says he gave up. As one of the Civil Guard officers piloting the helicopter says: “Too dangerous. A dead body is a terrible weight to carry.”

From the air, the river snakes its way toward Isla Mayor, a journey of around 40 kilometers from Sanlúcar, along which the smugglers pass. “Some 20 smugglers have been caught here and gone to prison, while others have fled,” says Enrique, a customer in a riverside bar close to the reeds where the boats usually moor. Enrique was caught in one raid and sentenced to three years in jail for carrying seven kilograms of hashish on his motorbike to Valencia, a trip of more than 650 kilometers. He says he’s out of the game, but others in the area scratch a living from working with the traffickers, especially since a ban on fishing for eels and shrimp came into force. Abandoned shrimp traps still lie on the river bed: the police say they are sometimes used to store drug packages.

The cheaper inflatable dinghies are abandoned or burned. The better-quality craft are moored at the town of La Línea, between Algeciras and Gibraltar. The places where they are stored can even be seen on Google Earth. The motors are good for around 10 trips, and then replaced, says Antonio. “We’re always ahead of the curve. Each time something new comes out, it’s bought. The drug traffickers have radar, night vision cameras, GPS… all the latest technology. It’s going to be hard to overtake them.” The methods change and the effectiveness of the authorities in combating the trade fluctuates. This isn’t a war, because wars eventually end. This goes on forever. And Antonio is one of the few survivors: most of his friends are in jail.

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