How people-smuggling mafias are gaining ground in Spain

According to police, drug-trafficking networks are being used to send migrants from the Canary Islands to the mainland

Patricia Ortega Dolz
A woman rescued at sea receives help at Arguineguín port in Gran Canaria.
A woman rescued at sea receives help at Arguineguín port in Gran Canaria.Ángel Medina G. (EFE)

The Facebook page of the Arguineguín Barbershop in Gran Canaria has the message: “We’ll be back soon” with the prayer emoji. Since the post was shared on April 14, there have been no new messages. On April 9, the Spanish National Police arrested the owners of the barbershop – the Akrams, a married couple from Morocco who had been living on the island for years – for running one of the most important people-smuggling rings from the Canary Islands to the Spanish mainland, as well as to other European countries such as France, Italy and the United Kingdom. A total of 45 people were arrested in the police operation – 28 in the Canary Islands and 17 in mainland Spain.

The operation is the latest of four sweeping probes against people-smuggling rings that have been carried out since last December by the Network Investigation Brigade, a group of just 100 police officers that is the only force in all of Europe exclusively focused on the lucrative trafficking business – which, they say, “is going to grow more.”

The brigade has created a network of informants in the area, set up monitoring and cooperative units with police from the home countries of those smuggled, and spent hours alongside interpreters listening to wiretaps authorized by judges. According to police sources, this work has revealed that people-smuggling mafias “are no longer in Africa, but in Spain.” What’s more, they are “using drug-trafficking structures to send people from the Canary Islands to the mainland.” A conclusion that has been backed by the brigade’s four latest operations.

For years, the Arguineguín Barbershop and its branch in the shopping mall in Puerto Rico in the popular tourist Mogán district operated just as hairdressers. But as thousands of migrants began to arrive to the Canary Islands by boat – a total of 23,000 reached the archipelago in 2020, and nearly 4,000 have arrived so far this year – the owners “saw an opportunity to do business.” An opportunity reflected in the registry of the barbershop, which was just 300 meters from the Arguineguín port facility where the smuggled migrant departed from.

“There are hundreds of names and none of them went there to get a haircut,” explains one investigator. “The order of arrival was scrupulously respected and they paid an advance of between €1,500 and €2,000, depending on whether or not they had documentation.” According to a travel agency, located in the same shopping mall in Puerto Rico as the hairdresser, whose owner was also arrested, the migrants were sent by plane or boat to the Spanish mainland or other European countries, and were given other people’s passports so they could board with a fake identity. “They had a bag of passports that they used over and over again, a member of the network went with them on the trip to the mainland and returned with the documents to use them again with the next ones, and so on,” the officers explain.

“They started to change the routes for departure: at first they left directly from Gran Canaria, then they changed island, as we cut off routes,” they add. Last December, when the surge in boat arrivals was putting the region under great pressure, some migrants were still able to fly from the archipelago to the Spanish mainland. This sparked a crackdown and the Spanish Interior Ministry began to ask for more documentation and to control ships leaving the region. The Canary Island turned into a barrier, instead of a bridge.

People-smuggling mafias are no longer in Africa, but in Spain
Police sources

In the meantime, the migrants who had arrived in the archipelago and were being kept in shelters or hotels, began to pressure or openly threatened the Akrhams and their partners to get them off the island. “It’s not worth paying for the boat to stay in the Canaries,” one voice was heard saying in the police wiretap.

“They began to put them on trucks within ferries,” explains one investigator, who says there was so much volume of work that people working with the Akrhams started their own smuggling routes, with one-fourth of the business being conducted “remotely from Murcia.” In one raid, police found €300,000 in cash. The police officers explain that investigating people-smuggling networks is difficult: “There are many pieces and they have to be put together, by finding people [who tend to flee], documents, money, shipments and logistical elements of the organization… Yet, the criminal sentence is very low: between two and four years in prison. This breeds a certain feeling of impunity,” the police sources say.

In addition to the rising number of migrants to the Canary Islands, the coronavirus pandemic – which has led to strict border restrictions – has also encouraged drug traffickers to start to traffic with people. “They have everything set up and they don’t even have to hide the goods because they can run away on their own two feet,” explain the officers. Indeed, in the people-smuggling probe Operation Neptune, “the very people being smuggled were in charge of stashing the drugs when they arrived in Tenerife,” the investigators add

Last October, an investigation was opened into the beating of a young Moroccan man over an alleged debt in La Línea de Concepción in the southern region of Andalusia. This probe ended up busting the criminal organization Campos Gallego, which was using ships for transporting drugs from Campo de Gibraltar province to bring people from the North African exclave of Ceuta to the mainland. The man allegedly responsible for the beating was the captain of one of these ships, which sank on February 7. The captain, who had been hired by Campos Gallego, died along with two migrants and a member of the organization who were also on board. Four other crew members “miraculously survived,” according to investigators.

The police raids on people-smuggling mafias have uncovered ships, firearms, ammunition, gasoline drums and jetskis. Until March 20, when police busted the Campos Gallego group, not even police cars entered the territory of the feared criminal organization, which “specialized in robbing rival gangs,” according to investigators.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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