Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Drugs turn villages into boom towns

COASTAL CRISIS In the town of Barbate, drug dealers zoom around in BMWs, while contract killings by Colombian killers between gangs are commonplace


For a fishing village with high unemployment, Barbate has a healthy sprinkling of fashionable clothes boutiques.

Abandoned fishing boats decay at the seaside, but many young people drive around in new cars or motorcycles and sport flashy gold chains.

Where the money comes from is an open secret. Only some 30km of water separate Barbate from Morocco, one of the world's main producers of hashish.

Barbate is far from being the only place in Spain where drug money is believed to boost the local economy.

"Our country is losing the fight against drug cartels," the daily El Mundo wrote recently. Spain has become one of the main hubs of the worldwide drug traffic, with more drugs reportedly passing through than ever before.

About 570 tonnes of hashish and 18 tonnes of cocaine were seized in Spain last year, more than in all other EU countries together.

It is estimated that 50 percent of the cocaine and 65 percent of the hashish consumed in Europe enters the continent via Spain.

Not surprisingly, Spain is also among the countries with proportionately the largest numbers of drug addicts. Some 24 percent of Spaniards have tried cannabis and 3 percent have taken cocaine, according to a 2001 survey.

Drug mafias earn more than 10 billion euros (US$12 billion) annually from drug sales and business activities in Spain, according to experts at the central bank.

Police believe a large part of the money is laundered in the British tax haven of Gibraltar and in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the Moroccan coast.

Boutiques which sell luxury goods for throwaway prices in places such as Barbate are thought to serve the same purpose.

Spain's geographical proximity with Morocco and cultural links with Latin America have been decisive in turning the country into a gateway for drugs.

It only takes 1.5 hours for drug boats to cross over from Morocco to the Spanish coast near Barbate in the dark of the night.

Hashish cargoes are also smuggled over the Strait of Gibraltar in fishing vessels, boats transporting illegal immigrants, and lorries carrying vegetables or textiles.

Colombian cocaine traffickers also like Spain, where they speak the language and can easily cooperate with local drug lords.

About half of the cocaine that arrives in Spain lands in the northwestern region of Galicia, whose ragged coastline was popular among tobacco smugglers before the cocaine trade took over.

Critics say some local police, officials and prosecutors form part of the drug network in Galicia and on the southern coast.

Legendary Galician drug lord Laureano Oubina is even said to have once stormed into a police station, complaining that an expected drug cargo had failed to materialize.

Today, Galician drug clans such as the Oubinas and the Charlines are increasingly being replaced by Colombian drug rings and their even more ruthless methods.

Colombian professional killers can be hired in Spain for about 3,000 euros, according to police sources. They have murdered dozens of their compatriots, mainly in settlements of accounts between drug traffickers in Madrid and on the Costa del Sol.

Severed body parts of Europeans have also turned up in garbage containers. Drug traffickers can kill each other just for the sake of three or four kilograms of cocaine, the daily El Pais reported.

Some European experts have criticized Spain for inefficiency. Tens of thousands of people are detained for drug offences every year, but critics say police focus on street dealers and big bosses while allowing middle-level traffickers to escape.

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