Could Catalonia’s growing marijuana market lead to a ‘narco-economy’?
A regional police report is warning about the dangers behind a drug that is driving increased violence between growers and criminal groups
“This will never be Mexico,” concedes a Spanish police source, speaking about the violence linked to the drug trade. But this same officer warns about the dangers of widespread cannabis cultivation in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, the region with the largest seizures of the recreational drug: 12,398 kilograms, followed by Andalusia with 9,565 kilograms and the Valencia region with 4,694 kilograms, according to Interior Ministry figures from 2018.
A 72-page report from the Catalan regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, warns about the risks of the region developing an entrenched “narco-economy” in which individuals who benefit from the system are “voluntarily excluding themselves from the legal framework.” The report also talks about “the creation of a cannabis culture and identity,” citing the Netherlands and Spain’s own southern Campo de Gibraltar area as examples.
We’re seeing a growing number of members of the police force showing up the investigationsAnonymous police source
The report, which is based on police data as well as Spanish and European studies, categorically asserts that “Catalonia is the epicenter of the illegal marijuana market in Europe.”
Between 2013 and 2017, cannabis plant seizures grew 538% (from 176,165 to 1,124,674 plants), making Spain the top European producer of the drug. In Catalonia, marijuana has long topped the list of drug seizures. In 2019 alone, the Mossos shut down 368 cannabis grow operations.
One of the consequences of this widespread cultivation is corruption. “We’re seeing a growing number of members of the police force showing up in the investigations,” laments one source.
Part of the problem is widespread social acceptance of marijuana, which is viewed as a soft drug. “The criminal does not always come from your classic drug background; there is less opposition to marijuana, and it represents a lot of money,” adds the same source.
In the last six years, the Mossos have broken up 150 criminal gangs that were trafficking with marijuana
And then there are the profits to be made by perfectly legal businesses that provide the technical support for grow operations. Indoors setups (which account for 65% of operations raided by the Mossos) are highly professional affairs: they use fertilizers, growth accelerators, light regulators, automatic sprinklers, ventilation systems and more. The Mossos have even found mobile spotlights powered by electrical motors that move to expand the area of light, and “smart” setups controlled remotely with computers.
The police have also come across electricians and engineers who were helping set up grow operations in Girona. During an investigation in Tarragona, officers also identified real estate agencies offering premises for indoor setups. And on top of all this there are the grow shops, which legally sell seeds and fertilizer – the Mossos tallied 122 active shops in 2016 – and cannabis clubs, which are occasionally used by criminal organizations for trafficking purposes.
There is no clear-cut profile of the average grower. They range from amateurs to members of organized crime. But the Catalan police warn that a rise in demand could encourage organized gangs to try to take control of the market, the quality and the price of the drug. Spain still has one of the cheapest prices in Europe, at €5.66 a gram in Barcelona compared with the European average of €7 to €13. And taking control of the market “can only be achieved through violence,” note police sources.
This violence already exists. Last week, two people were murdered in Lloret de Mar (Girona) and Flix (Tarragona) over marijuana-related conflicts. There have been nine other homicides since 2016. And this week, Civil Guards in Andalusia were shot at after discovering a field of cannabis outside a village. (see side box).
Greeted with gunshots
By Jesús A Cañas
On Wednesday, three Civil Guard officers were shot with pellet guns after they uncovered a marijuana grow operation in the middle of a field near Bornos, a small village in the mountains of Cádiz. Two local men with a long record of petty crime have been identified as the attackers, and more than 200 law enforcement officers have been deployed to track them down after they disappeared into the hills, which they are said to “know like the back of their hand.” Neither one of the officers is in a critical state, but one has sustained significant leg injuries. Marijuana growing has become increasingly common in the area in recent times.
But most of the violence takes place when traffickers attempt to steal existing crops. Some use drones to identify grow operations before moving in. Meanwhile, the growers arm themselves to prevent getting robbed, leading to additional violence. In March, Civil Guard officers attempting to search a suspect warehouse in Riudoms (Tarragona) were greeted with gunshots.
In the last six years, the Mossos have broken up 150 criminal gangs that were trafficking with marijuana, but they were only able to press money-laundering charges on four occasions. The Catalan police’s report complains about a lack of resources to conduct in-depth research into the “dirty” origin of the gangs’ money. The profits are often invested in real estate, and the more sophisticated networks put their money into the hospitality sector and in financial products.
Besides the social acceptance and the low penalties for trafficking with the drug, investigators point to other elements that are driving marijuana growth in Spain, such as an abundance of sparsely populated rural areas and a real estate crisis that left behind many empty premises where it is easy to set up a grow operation.
In the case of Catalonia, success also hinges on the region’s strategic location as a gateway to the rest of Europe. The border is populated with “marijuana brokers” who act as go-betweens for “markets, territories and criminal networks.” They buy the drug in Andalusia or Valencia for €1,800 a kilogram, take it to Catalonia, and resell it for €2,500.
The report concludes that the marijuana trade will continue to grow in the coming years “unless a disruptive element comes along to slow down the system’s inertia.”
English version by Susana Urra.