The innocent Spanish fisherman who got cast as a criminal

Tomás Martínez speaks bitterly about the year he spent in jail after being wrongly accused of belonging to a drug gang in the south of Spain

Tomás Martínez on Cabopino beach near Marbella.
Tomás Martínez on Cabopino beach near Marbella.J. A. H.

“Stop making things up… to jail with you!” The voice of the judge in a Málaga courtroom still rings in the ears of Tomás Martínez, 47, a local fishing enthusiast whose life took a dramatic turn when a night on the beach ended up in a jail sentence and almost a year behind bars in Alhaurín de la Torre prison.

Tomás had planted his two fishing rods meters apart on the shore of Cabopino, 13 kilometers from Marbella (Andalusia), believing he was alone. Each rod had a small neon light that beamed when he got a nibble. The night was long and the moon was bright and he sat in his director-style chair and admired its reflection in the water. Then a large boat with more than 300 kilograms of hashish on board materialized out of the darkness.

Tomás lost his job and his house when he was wrongfully sent to jail

The stage was set for a massive drug haul and Tomás was inadvertently at the center of the action. Two police officers claimed he was involved.

“I was fishing quietly and had nothing to do with it but they didn’t even let me speak,” says Tomás, who spent 345 days in jail and six years on provisional release before his case went to trial and he was finally acquitted.

He had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time – February 21, 2010 on Cabopino beach, a long stretch of sand favored by nudists. It was chilly and he had wrapped up warmly. Apart from his rods, all he had with him was his dinner and his fishing license. With the bait he had left over from the night before, he was hoping to get lucky and catch some sea bream.

But, unknown to Tomás, he was being watched by dozens of pairs of eyes, some peering at him from among the reeds and others from cars discreetly parked in the car park. They were eyes that belonged to the Civil Guard, who were watching National Police officers posing as fake civil guards, to tail other Civil Guard officers suspected of turning a blind eye to the drug smuggling along the coast. But there were even more people sneaking around on the beach that night, namely two gangs of Moroccan and sub-Saharan traffickers who were fighting over the cargo, with one gang planning to relieve the other gang of the goods.

I have ended up hating my country

Fisherman Tomás Martínez

At 10pm, everyone except Tomás knew the boat was about to land. Blissfully unaware, he was throwing two small fish back into the sea when seven or eight Moroccans came up behind him. “One of them said in perfect Spanish, ‘Keep calm. If you stay quiet, nothing will happen to you’,” recalls Tomás. “I sat still and they took my cellphone from me. I had just called my wife. Then, almost without a sound, the boat arrived. It was black and enormous and a number of people piled out of it.”

Everything happened at lightning speed. The men from the boat and the ones holding Tomás started to unload bails of hashish as fast as they could and ship them across the beach to a van in the parking lot. “Minutes later, I saw lights coming along the beach toward me and a cry of ‘Hands up! Police!’ and the sound of shots and more shots,” he says. Without moving from his chair Tomás put his hands in the air. “I was very scared and kept thinking, ‘God, don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me!’” At the same time there was a stampede of people chased by the police. The beach had turned into a scene from a slapstick gangster movie. Twelve people were arrested that night.

The trials and tribulations of jail

Tomás finds it painful to recall his year in Alhaurín jail, not to mention his three days in a police cell. After his arrest, he had to eat the trays of food they put in front of him with his hands. “There was no cutlery,” he says. “I had to wear the clothes I had on for fishing for days without underwear and we had to clean our asses with a disgusting rubber hose.”

When he got to jail, he asked if he could work. “It didn’t matter where. I had to distract myself. I cleaned a lot of toilet bowls filled with shit,” he says.

“You’re the fisherman, right? Shut your mouth and lie face down like the others!” one officer shouted at him. According to Tomás, his pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears. “He pushed my neck into the sand with his boot. While I was lying there, another officer said he had been watching me and knew I had nothing to do with these people. But another officer appeared who seemed to be the boss and he shouted, ‘Cuff him and bring him in!’”

Tomás’s case was tried in courtroom number 4, then subsequently in courtroom 8 and finally 11. A number of judges from Marbella and Málaga had had their eyes on the black drug boat and its activities along the Costa del Sol for some time. The night Tomás got embroiled in the action on Cabopino was just another day’s work for the extensive network of traffickers who were colluding with the local Civil Guard to bring drugs of various descriptions to Málaga and Cádiz. Eight months after Tomás was sentenced, the former drug squad boss from Málaga’s Civil Guard, Valentín Fernández, who had been on Cabopino beach that night, was arrested along with other officers. He and his colleagues received sentences of up to 10 years a piece for facilitating the entry of drugs into Spain.

Tomás was accused of being a lookout as the boat had landed between his two fishing rods and the lights on the rods were believed to have been some kind of all-clear signal. “It was all lies,” says Tomás. “Those lights are on the back of the rod. I see them from behind. But you can’t see them from the sea.”

“You’re the fisherman, right? Shut your mouth and lie face down like the others!” one officer shouted at him

A tapped telephone conversation from Cabopino beach just before the boat landed captured an absurd exchange between the bosses of the two narco gangs: “Is this fisherman yours?” one drug boss asks the other. “No, not mine.” “Well, he’s not mine either,” says the first. “So he’s nobody’s.” Tomás’ lawyer, María Jesús Yáñez, brought this exchange to the judge’s attention almost a year later and Tomás was let out on provisional release but he had to wait another six years for the trial.

When the case was eventually heard, the judge shot down the evidence provided by the prosecutor, who was demanding seven years in jail and a €13 million fine. When the prosecutor argued that two police officers had declared Tomás had not moved from his chair when the boat came ashore, the judge pointed out that it was normal to remain still in alarming circumstances. “Why would I move if the Moroccans had said they would kill me if I did?” asks Tomás.

“It’s normal for people to be fishing at night along the coast,” the judge told the prosecutor. “His car was searched that very night and the only thing in it was fishing equipment – nothing to do with drugs.”

I was very scared and kept thinking, ‘God, don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me!’ Fisherman Tomás Martínez

Around 30 defendants were lined up alongside Tomás on a bench in the Málaga court. Seven defendants were acquitted, including Tomás, but he has still not recovered from his ordeal. During his interview with EL PAÍS he weeps as he recalls everything that he lost when he went to jail – not only his job but also his house, which was repossessed by the banks when he failed to keep up with his mortgage payments.

When he was released, he and his wife took their children to Galicia. “I took them 1,200 kilometers from here, where I didn’t have to see anyone. I have ended up hating my country,” he says.

Tomás is now claiming €220,000 from the state in compensation for the 345 days he spent in jail and the psychological damage he suffered. The General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), Spain’s legal watchdog, has released a report on the matter that argues that, given the case concerns an alleged legal error, only an ordinary court can decide how much compensation is due. Tomás is still waiting for a decision.

English version by Heather Galloway.


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