The Spanish Christmas gathering that brought down Belgium’s most-wanted drug lord

The Civil Guard tracked down Yannick M. W. after he fled to the Costa del Sol, where he lived a life of luxury for a year

Spain's Civil Guard arrests the alleged leader of a drug-trafficking ring from Belgium.
Spain's Civil Guard arrests the alleged leader of a drug-trafficking ring from Belgium.Servicio Ilustrado (Automático) (Europa Press)
Patricia Ortega Dolz

Yannick M. W., a 33-year-old from Belgium, had settled down in a luxury villa in Estepona, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, with his entire family: his wife, his 12-year-old daughter, his parents and his in-laws, according to an investigation by the Spanish Civil Guard’s UCO organized crime unit.

But it wasn’t until June of last year that the law-enforcement agency learned that he was Belgium’s most wanted drug trafficker.

“[He was] the leader of the biggest organization in Antwerp, an importer of huge cocaine shipments from Latin America who also controlled that important European seaport; he also had ties to arms trafficking,” said one investigator, in reference to Europe’s second-largest port.

He told us that he knew why he was being arrested, and that he felt relieved because he had been through several months of intense stress
UCO investigating officer

The Belgian justice system wants to put him behind bars for 15 years for these activities. But for more than a year M. W. lived a life of luxury in southern Spain, inside mansions located in remote spots where any approaching vehicle would easily catch his eye.

But Christmas was his downfall. Civil Guard officers arrested him in Almuñécar, in Granada province, where he was spending the holidays with family members.

The Belgian police busted his Antwerp network in October, arresting its members and issuing a European arrest warrant for M. W. By then the latter had already been located in Málaga province by the Spanish Civil Guard, following an alert from Belgian authorities.

“They suspected that he had fled to Spain, and more specifically to Málaga,” said a member of the UCO’s Fugitives from Justice Team, which specializes in hunting down criminals hiding in Spain. Costa del Sol remains a favorite destination for drug lords on the run seeking a discreet hiding spot.

After those arrests in Antwerp, and presumably alerted by aides to the fact that he might be under surveillance, M. W. moved to a different house in Estepona, abandoning the beachfront property where he had been living in favor of a much more remote villa north of the city, at the foot of the mountains. “It was the last house in the area, it was isolated,” noted a source involved in the investigation.

As soon as the UCO officers received the arrest warrant, they moved in on the house. But it was too late: M. W. had left again. “There was nobody in the house, he had vanished,” said the source.

The Christmas holidays were coming up, and the officers decided to wait and see what happened. “We didn’t know whether he was in Spain or not,” said the source. Officers confirmed that his family remained in Estepona, where his daughter was still enrolled in the same school and living with her grandparents.

The suspect always chose remote houses located at the furthest ends of residential developments

Then, on December 23, investigators saw that the grandparents were packing and loading bags into the back of a car. They followed them to a luxury residential estate in Almuñécar (Granada), where the passengers of the vehicle joined other members of the family inside a house located, once more, in the furthest corner of the development.

A few days after that, a man emerged from the house riding an electric scooter. It was Yannick M. W., who was immediately arrested. “He told us that he knew why he was being arrested, and that he felt relieved because he had been through several months of intense stress,” said an officer. The suspect was sent to prison awaiting extradition to Belgium.

The operation was conducted by the UCO’s Fugitives Team, which has arrested several foreign criminals in Spain since its creation in 2015. In 2018, this unit caught one of Europe’s most wanted pedophiles in Granada province; the suspect was extradited to the United Kingdom, where he was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexually assaulting two minors.

English version by Susana Urra.

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