DRUG TRAFFICKING

Faced with depleting supplies, drug traffickers step up violence against police in southern Spain

More than a dozen officers have been injured after being rammed by SUVs driven by narcos who are increasingly ‘broke and desperate’

Civil Guard officers take part in the latest operation against hashish drug gangs in La Línea de la Concepción on September 19.
Civil Guard officers take part in the latest operation against hashish drug gangs in La Línea de la Concepción on September 19.A.Carrasco Ragel / EFE

Sitting at a table with his top aides and two Arab suppliers, Antonio Tejón, the infamous leader of the Castaña drug clan, issues an order: “Right now I am free, but at any moment I could go to jail. Everyone is going to get paid; I don’t want anyone begging. But we have to recover everything we have lost.”

The meeting took place on September 3 in an apartment in Sotogrande, a luxury gated community in San Roque, in southern Spain, according to a Civil Guard officer working in the area. Forty-eight hours later, a policeman was seriously injured after being rammed by an SUV protecting a drug shipment in Algeciras, in Cádiz province.

It was not the first attack on a police officer – in fact, it came on the back of three other assaults – but it was the one that made the Civil Guard and National Police conclude that the string of attacks was not a coincidence. “It was a clear sign that the order had come from above,” says an officer specializing in the fight against hashish trafficking. Now, with more than a dozen wounded officers between the southern provinces of Cádiz and Málaga, the Civil Guard officer who described the Sotogrande meeting of the Castaña clan goes further in his analysis. “They are broke and desperate. [...] The places where they hide the drugs are empty. They are at the end of their rope.”

This desperation has meant the drug traffickers are reverting to behavior that is familiar to police in Campo de Gibraltar, in Cádiz province. The decision to ram powerful, stolen SUVs into patrol cars during a bust is a reminder of the lawless era between 2017 and early 2018, when drug traffickers acted with complete impunity. Now, officers are concerned not only about the ramming tactics but also the increasing number of weapons being seized. “Before this, finding them [the weapons] was the exception and they were generally used as a means of defense against other organizations, to avoid being robbed,” says one officer in Málaga. “Now, it is getting more dangerous. But nothing will be done about it until something more serious happens.”

For some time now, arrested drug traffickers have been warning the police that they would face consequences for trying to shut down the cartels. The warnings came in response to the Interior Ministry’s special security plan, which since mid-2018 has made it more difficult to transport hashish over the Strait of Gibraltar, hurting the million-euro trade. Now, the coronavirus lockdown in March and subsequent police investigations have increased the drug traffickers’ frustration. And while the stashes of hashish are rapidly diminishing, demand from the Spanish and European markets remains high.

“On the Cantabrian coast [in northern Spain], the price of hashish has tripled,” explains the officer specialized in hashish traffic. “Although less is coming in, more is at stake.” Meanwhile, the Civil Guard is acutely aware that there is a monumental increase in the production of marijuana in Spain. “It is tremendous and it could damage the hashish [trade],” he adds. “It has the appeal of being labeled as natural and it is taking over. It could be part of the reason they [the Castaña clan] are trying to regain lost ground.”

Meanwhile, according to the Málaga officer, the drug lords have made it clear that the merchandise has to reach its destination at all costs. “They are paying their employees more as they have to take more risks,” he explains.

Drug shortages

Many of the Civil Guard agents in the area recognize that the attacks bear the hallmarks of Antonio Tejón who, together with his brother Francisco, better known as “Isco,” controls the hashish drug trafficking business in southern Spain, bringing them an estimated fortune of €30 million.

Antonio was released from prison in July after a judicial error and he soon made it clear that he was not about to turn his back on his business. But in the meeting in San Roque on September 3, he indicated that the current situation has left him little option but to pay his team, spend his remaining cash resources, which have been heavily depleted by police raids, and do what it takes to restock supply. “The trademark tactic is to ram the vehicle in front into the patrol car while the vehicle behind, which is loaded with drugs, makes its getaway,” says an officer working in Cádiz. “That’s what he [Antonio Tejón] made clear during the meeting with his people when he told them that the money had to be recovered.”

Sources who spoke to EL PAÍS are not sure which direction the drug trade will take next, given the current uncertainty. As he himself predicted, Antonio Tejón returned to prison in mid-September and left one of his members in charge of the Castaña clan. Though demand continues to rise, drugs in southern Spain are scarce as the officers gain the upper hand despite the attacks. “They [drug traffickers] are beginning to get scared,” says a Civil Guard agent from Campo de Gibraltar. “There is no hashish and no money. And although they are trying to recover some of the lost ground with marijuana, it won’t be the same. We will see.”

Expansion along the coast

Drug trafficking in the Strait of Gibraltar works on the basis of communicating vessels. If the police block one entry point, another one pops up, as Francisco Mena, president of the anti-drug federation Nexos, frequently points out.

Now that the police have a stranglehold on the area, drug gangs have been increasingly moving up the coast to Estepona, Manilva, Marbella, Fuengirola and Mijas. They have even reached as far as La Axarquía, in Málaga province.

Another departure from traditional business practice is an incident in San Fernando where a narco boat offloaded 900 kilograms of hashish in broad daylight at a spot on the Bay of Cádiz located near the popular Bahía del Sur shopping mall, and later concealed the shipment inside a house in Chiclana de la Frontera.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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