Narco warfare on the rise on Spain’s Costa del Sol

Escalating violence over the last year is linked to rivalry between new organized crime gangs that have settled in the area

A billboard showing those wanted for arrest in Costa del Sol.
A billboard showing those wanted for arrest in Costa del Sol.

Days before he was killed, David Ávila Ramos received a visit from two police officers. “They’re coming for you. Have you got anything you’d like to tell us?” they asked him.

Ramos, known jokingly as Maradona for his lack of soccer skill, had already been given plenty of warning. In March 2018, someone had driven a stolen jeep into his gym in San Pedro de Alcántara in Málaga in the south of Spain. Shortly after, they burned down his beach café, Heaven, which he co-owned with Naoufal Mrabet, 41, in Estepona. A day after that, Mrabet’s body turned up in a burned out Ferrari in Dubai along with the corpse of one of his friends from Málaga. Dubai authorities said it was an accident.

They have no fear, no scruples or code of honor. They are only interested in the money

Police sources

By the age of 37, Maradona had spent more than half of his life in the drug trafficking business along the Costa del Sol, dealing with people from Colombia, Holland, France and England. He had debts and enemies but still he told the police: “Nothing is going to happen to me.”

But something did. The day of his son’s First Communion ceremony on May 12, a man on a motorbike fired at him five times through the window of his Audi. He had just got inside with his family after leaving the church. Officers from the Drugs and Organized Crime Unit (UDYCO) found out that “the Swedes” – a gang of hitmen of Arabic origin working out of Malmö in the south of Sweden, had tried to kill him on a number of other occasions. “They took a huge risk and opted for the day of the communion so that they wouldn’t fail again,” says one of the investigators working on the case.

Maradona’s murder was the fourth at point blank range in 2018. Another happened on November 21, bringing the total to six this year. A 58-year-old Frenchman was riddled with bullets fired from a Kalashnikov rifle in the garage of his home in Marbella as more scores were settled.

The arrest of the Swedes, a gang of nine men, almost all under the age of 30 and acting under the orders of two brothers, has resolved two murders. The gang, said by police to be the most bloodthirsty hitmen ever seen in the area, has been charged with killing Maradona and Moroccan Sofian Mohamed A. B. Sofian was murdered when he went out to his garden on August 20 after receiving a trick call and was shot eight times by a hooded figure on a bicycle. Police believe that both murders are linked to a drug theft.

The level of violence in the Costa del Sol is escalating. Bombs have been thrown into homes, business premises set alight, tortured bodies thrown into ditches near hospitals, faces disfigured with knives carving out Joker-style smiles and arsenals of automatic rifles and grenades have been seized.

Gang members use knives to carve out Joker-style smiles on their victims

The victims of the violence are Dutch, English, Swedish, French, Croatian and Spanish. Local billboards now feature the faces of wanted criminals instead of advertisements for sodas, fueling alarm among locals.

The Costa del Sol is “a kind of organized crime convention, a melting pot of delinquency, a type of co-working and networking space for narcos where the most powerful organizations in the country gather to conduct their illegal business,” says one police officer.

The fact that a gang of hitmen were trying to move in on the area is the most alarming development so far.

“The bosses of these organizations hide out and live here and they provide each other with services,” say police sources. The infrastructure here is second to none – an international airport, luxury residential areas for foreigners to live anonymously and where they can also launder their drug money. They have the port of Algeciras on hand for cocaine – it’s the fourth biggest in terms of containers in the world. They have Morocco with all its hashish a stone’s throw away, and operators from Campo de Gibraltar and La Línea to move the merchandise. Then there’s Gibraltar for big investments, not to mention a good climate

“As long as business is going well – one pays, the other charges and no one robs anyone – everyone’s a winner and everything works. But when something goes wrong, as it has now, scores get settled. The odd thing is that it doesn’t happen more often,” the same sources explain.

So what has gone “wrong” on the Costa del Sol?

According to police, there are various reasons. “Behind some of the murders is the theft of goods from a powerful organization run by Colombians or Mexicans,” says a source. “Other murders are linked to rivalry between two Dutch gangs.”

When something goes wrong, as it has now, scores get settled. The odd thing is that it doesn’t happen more often

Police sources

Police from a special unit, however, suggest there are new developments driving the violence. “Those involved are younger. They have no fear, no scruples or code of honor. They are only interested in the money and they have seen too many bad-guy films,” says one. “You can see it; they are youngsters with expensive cars who spend vast sums in VIP clubs. There is more cocaine production; since the peace accords [were signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC] in Colombia it seems they’ve stepped it up. They need more merchandise and they get more people to receive it, which breaks up the gangs.”

Police estimate that there are more than 100 organizations working along the Costa del Sol, all of which are linked to drugs. There are also a lot of arms being sold on the black market. The police are seizing veritable arsenals, reminiscent of the days when the now-dissolved Basque terror group ETA was running its violent campaign for independence.

It is a dangerous cocktail that, according to the UDYCO, needs careful policing and sound lawyers and judges to tackle it – some officers maintain that they frequently run into those they arrested out and about when they should be on trial.

But the police are stepping up their response to the escalating violence. The fall of a gang of 13 Dutchmen with 6,000 kilograms of cocaine and now The Swedes is just the start, they say, of a massive crackdown.

A summary of the violence to date

May 7: A 52-year-old Croatian man was kidnapped with his wife and dumped in a ditch in Marbella. The man's body was beaten and riddled with bullets. The woman survived.

May 12: A man on a motorbike killed David Ávila Ramos, aka Maradona, after his son's First Communion ceremony.

August 17: Two Swedish drug traffickers were tricked into visiting a chalet in Mijas. Once there, three members of a gang tied them up and tortured them for hours to extract information on a shipment of drugs. One escaped. The other was killed. The hitmen fled in the direction of Algeciras, leaving a burning car in their wake. They were bound for Morocco. A number of this organization were arrested in Operation Tijereta.

August 20: Sofian Mohamed A. B. was murdered by a hooded man on a bike outside his home in the Campanario Urbanization in Estepona. The 34-year-old victim was shot eight times.

September 8: An Englishman was admitted to Marbella's Costa del Sol Hospital with two bullets in his legs and what is known as a "Joker smile" carved into his face.

October 9: Two explosions went off, one in front of the Mirador de la Alquería residential area in Benahavís, the other in an industrial estate in San Pedro de Alcántara, Marbella. There were no victims.

October 27: A hooded assailant killed a man at point blank range while he was dining at the Tiki restaurant in Torremolinos. The victim was identified as the person behind one of the explosions.

November 21: A 58-year-old Frenchman was showered with bullets from a Kalashnikov rifle in his garage.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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