How Chinese mafias reinvented Spain’s marijuana trade

The large-scale drug operation included an insurance company and secret houses-within-houses

Patricia Ortega Dolz
Image of a marijuana plantation run by a Chinese mafia group.
Image of a marijuana plantation run by a Chinese mafia group.National Police

A tip-off three years ago launched “Operation Mastín,” a police operation that led to 41 arrests last year. Twenty of the suspects are now in pre-trial detention; all of them are Chinese men between 25 and 35, except for a Spanish electrician.

The final blow that brought down the criminal organization behind the large-scale marijuana production came from the Central Unit for Specialized and Violent Crime (UDEV) in November last year, when agents destroyed the last two plantations – out of 12 in total – with 2,500 marijuana plants in Girona and Barcelona. The involvement of Chinese mafias in the marijuana business “has led to a boom in its production in Spain in the last four years,” say investigators.

A marijuana plantation raided by the Civil Guard.
A marijuana plantation raided by the Civil Guard.CIVIL GUARD

This past Thursday, the Civil Guard arrested another five Chinese nationals in Chiva, Valencia, after seizing 12,000 marijuana plants (the province’s biggest marijuana bust) and “goods valued at €7 million.” Experts behind Operation Greenboard confirmed that marijuana trade and production have grown exponentially due to Chinese mafias. In 2017, the amount of marijuana seizures rose by 55.7%, according to the latest data from the Interior Ministry.

The tip-off that led to the sweeping, year-long investigation came from someone in the Chinese community, who said that “a group of Chinese men from the United Kingdom are asking around to find out who grows marijuana in Spain.” This set off an investigation that was full of surprises, and quickly uncovered how a group of Chinese residents in Spain with a long work and business history – “many of them had businesses and had been working in stores and restaurants” – decided to diversify their revenues by getting involved with marijuana production and selling the drug to the United Kingdom. “It was a fast way of making money to become a top dog in business,” said investigators, who explained that many important Chinese business people left Spain after the financial crisis.

They control the chain, from the cultivation to the final distribution and this way they also increase profit Police investigators

The first surprise was the discovery that the suspects had strategically adapted their business in response to police actions. “They scattered their production in 12 different regions so as to not lose the entire crop,” explained investigators. Each stage of the business was perfectly organized. “There were the recruiters, who scouted for houses and industrial warehouses which could be used for the plantation; we have found three floors in one of them full of marijuana plants.”

According to statements by the accused, they could make up to €120,000 over a three-month period at each production point. A money-counting machine was found in one of the 25 plantations. “Although there was not one single ringleader because the organization worked on a more horizontally level defined by how close a person was to the money,” investigators explain.

Behind the “recruiters,” there were the “assemblers,” those in charge of physically putting together the plantation. In this, the group also became increasingly sophisticated. At the beginning they hired an electrician – the only Spaniard to be arrested – to set up the lights and heating circuits at the plantation, “but as soon as they learned how to do it they did it all by themselves,” say investigators. “The logistics are easy because it is their own production. They control the chain, from the cultivation to the final distribution, and this way they also increase the profit.”

A house or a Russian doll?

Another surprise is how they built structures within warehouses and houses, mimicking Russian dolls, and insulated them – “as if they were a thermos flask” – to prevent them the smell and heat from being detected. This strategy meant they eluded heat detectors, which are used by the police to locate these kinds of plantations, typically situated in remote locations. They also used power from the general electricity grid, so that nearby businesses were only able to detect that they had lost energy but not where from. “To camouflage themselves better, they consumed home or warehouse electricity normally and they paid their bills to avoid zero consumption, which would have been suspicious,” say investigators.

They lived like anyone else in Spain’s Chinese community Police investigators

Once set up, the growers came into play, and lastly, on the lowest rung on the ladder, the plant caretakers, who were typically Chinese citizens brought in from China solely for this role. “They came in as tourists, were put up in houses, had their passports taken away and did not leave again so as to not draw attention to themselves. They even had food brought in for them,” the agents explain. “It wasn’t quite a kidnapping because nobody was held against their will and they were free to go if they wished, but it was a form of 21st-century slavery.”

The criminal organization spread over much of Spain (Vizcaya, Burgos, Valladolid, León, Zamora, Madrid, Guadalajara, Salamanca, Barcelona, Girona) with each plantation point connected with one another: “They spoke on the phone, they tried to avoid stepping on each others’ business, they shared distribution channels.” Their lifestyle never caught them out, and they did not call attention to themselves: “They lived like anyone else in Spain’s Chinese community, and they also used fake or stolen identification to rent out property and vehicles.”

Marijuana insurance

Adding another layer of sophistication – and here comes the last surprise – the Chinese group implemented an ad hoc insurance agency to cover losses if the merchandise was lost on the way or intercepted. The goal was not to lose, or at least, not to lose everything. “They detected that they lost a set number of packages, normally between five and 15 kilograms, valued at between €3,000 and €4,000 a kilogram, so they set up an insurance business in which the insurer kept 20% of the value of the package but if it didn’t arrive at its destination, they returned 35% of its total value, and in this way nobody lost.”

It was a form of 21st century slavery Police investigators

The packages, mainly sent to Manchester and Birmingham, were perfectly camouflaged, sealed inside double bags and wrapped up in towels soaked in a synthetic scent which made them undetectable to trained dogs.

The incorporation of Chinese mafias in the marijuana business, a drug that “they see as less harmful,” has led to a boom in production in Spain, according to investigators. It is a new business for them and at its early stages, but one, investigators warn, that is already involving Vietnamese people in the last links of the chain.

Investigators attribute the arrival of the Chinese in the marijuana market to the financial crisis: “The crisis left a dearth of big businesses and some small ones opted to take the middle road the moment they saw opportunities, with dozens of abandoned warehouses in range.”

Operation Mastín is now hoping to solve the meaning of a tip picked up by an agent listening in to a telephone call made by one of the arrested men: “Working with the business is more expensive.” It is not known yet what “the business” is, where it is, or who is behind it.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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