Marijuana slaves in Spain: a year imprisoned in a warehouse

Catalan police have rescued 10 people who had been trafficked by a Chinese mafia and forced to cultivate the drug

The conditions in which the captives in the marijuana warehouses were living.
The conditions in which the captives in the marijuana warehouses were living.

The footage from Operation Long lasts just three minutes. The worst parts of the video show mattresses pushed against each other on the floor, cooking pots scattered on tables, bottles filled with yellow liquid, cardboard being used as beds, with duvets thrown on top. There are no windows; it’s dirty and there are washing lines everywhere.

This is how 10 people enslaved by marijuana traffickers had been living when they were found by the Catalan regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra. Some had been locked away for as long as a year. Police arrested eight people in the operation, four of whom have been sent to prison.

Operation Long was launched in 2019, when the Mossos d’Esquadra learned that a Chinese mafia could also be involved in people trafficking. In this case, however, instead of arriving in Spain to be exploited sexually or in supermarkets or massage centers, the victims were being locked up and forced to work in marijuana warehouses in order to pay the mafia back for bringing them into Spain – a sum anywhere between €10,000 and €30,000.

“It is the first time that the operation has aimed to free these people, as well as charging the criminal organization for their crimes,” explains Toni Salleras, the head of the Mossos organized crime unit. During the wiretaps, the investigators heard the mafia discussing their hostages. “They said that some of them had not left the warehouse for more than a year,” recalls Salleras. A statement from one of the two female victims, confirmed this. “When I entered the plantation, no one was wearing a mask outside,” she said. “And now that I have been let out, I see they are.” The victims were released on May 25 when it was still mandatory to wear a face mask outdoors due to the coronavirus pandemic, a law that remained in force for 401 days in Spain.

The space in which the people held in the marijuana cultivation warehouses lived.
The space in which the people held in the marijuana cultivation warehouses lived. Mossos d´Escuadra (EL PAÍS)

The victims were surprised by the raid launched by the Catalan police force, who transferred them by bus to NGOs specializing in human trafficking. “They were aware that they were being held, but there was also a culture shock,” explains Salleras. Some believed that sooner or later they would get out of there, once they paid off a debt that was growing, according to the traffickers’ whim. “They were brought food once a week,” says Salleras. “Sometimes, when that was difficult, once every 10 days.” Some of the victims tried to escape, but failed: “There were members of the organization inside the plantation,” Salleras explains.

The Catalan police raided four warehouses – located in Abrera, Centelles, Santa Coloma de Cervelló and Sant Andreu de la Barca in Barcelona province – that were being used to grow marijuana. “They were very well set up, with an industrial production rate,” says Salleras. The victims there were forced to work at every stage of production: growing the marijuana, replanting, drying, the extraction of the buds and finally the shipment of the drug. In each warehouse, there were different rooms with plants at different stages of growth to ensure production went uninterrupted.

Aged between 20 and 30, the victims were targeted on account of their economic vulnerability. To get to Spain, they first entered the European Union on forged visas. The mafia was able to pass them off as representatives of a company participating in events such as a trade fair in Lithuania, for example. Once inside the Schengen Area, they were moved through different countries until they ended up locked up in one of the organization’s four warehouses in Barcelona province. Once there, their passports were taken away.

During the operation, the Catalan police officers arrested eight people who are accused of belonging to a criminal organization involved with human trafficking and drug trafficking, as well as document forgery and electricity fraud. Police believe the leader of the group is the head of Bang de Fujian, a people smuggling gang known as a “snakehead” that operates in the Fujian region of China. This leader had no criminal record and ran other businesses in Barcelona, while the others arrested had records for sexual exploitation and drug trafficking.

The Mossos d’Esquadra estimate that the mafia had earned around €2 million from marijuana, which was sent via parcel delivery services to cities such as Glasgow, in the United Kingdom, and occasionally also to locations in the Netherlands, such as Amsterdam, The Hague and Eindhoven. The police checked the shipment of 50 packages, each containing between 8 and 10 kilos. According to their calculations, the organization had trafficked 450 kilos of marijuana. They also found 5,500 marijuana plants, 60 kilos of buds ready for distribution and €42,600 in cash.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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