Tue, Aug 08, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Killings surge on Costa del Crime

EXPAT VIOLENCE An increase in murders among British crooks living in southern Spain has local police concerned about the rise of new drug gangs

THE GUARDIAN , MARBELLA, SPAIN

It was a busy Friday evening at The Point, a bar in the southern Spanish resort of Marbella, as the mainly British clientele enjoyed the warm night air on a terrace overlooking a palm tree-lined golf course.

Among the drinkers was a regular known as Gerry, a popular 43-year-old Londoner who had been living around the British-dominated neighborhood of Nueva Andalucia for some years.

In the few seconds it takes to pump half a dozen bullets into someone from point-blank range, the calm of an idyllic Mediterranean evening was shattered.

"There were several shots and everybody just hit the ground," said one person who was in The Point that night.

By the time people had picked themselves up off the floor or begun to run, a blood-spattered, bullet-ridden Gerry was either dead or close to dead. An ambulance crew certified his death at the scene.

Speculation immediately started that the increasingly deadly battles being fought by British drug gangs in Spain had erupted among the bougainvillea-clad villas and white-painted, low-rise apartment blocks of Nueva Andalucia.

"They say it was a gangland execution," said Romualdo Velasco, a local shop-owner whose apartment overlooks The Point. "The British keep themselves to themselves, so it is hard to know."

There was no doubt that the gunman, or gunmen, wanted Gerry dead. He had taken at least five bullets.

Gerry's popularity can be measured by the two dozen floral tributes wilting in the sunshine outside The Point. Cards on them describe him as "a great mate," "a dear friend" and someone "who will never be forgotten" or is "constanly (sic) in our thoughts." They are signed by people like "Little John," "Biff and Family" and numerous British couples or families.

Spanish police, who carted the corpses of four executed British and Irish crooks off to morgues in July alone, are keeping tight- lipped. But they obviously fear the worst. Gerry's real name, it has turned out, was William Moy.

"He was already known to us," Commissar Valentin Bahut, head of the police's organized crime unit in nearby Malaga, said. "We had arrested him in 2000."

With a local judge ordering that the investigation be kept secret, Commissar Bahut could not talk in detail about the case. But he confirmed there was growing concern about British and Irish bodies piling up in Spanish morgues.

For the police, used to the presence of British crooks in a place that gained its Costa del Crime nickname decades ago, the deaths are a worrying sign of change.

"It used to be that the British people fought in other ways," he explained.

"It was the French or Italians who killed one another. But as of a few years ago we have noticed the British are getting violent in a way that they were not before," he added. "Now they have -- and use -- firearms."

Among the reasons for increased violence, he said, was the arrival of Northern Irish gangsters who had previously been involved in sectarian violence.

Britain's decision to concentrate policing on Class A drugs had helped as it allowed gangs to flourish.

"Drug gangs always generate other types of crimes among themselves, especially robbery, kidnapping and murder," Commissar Bahut said. "The British have now realized that you have to keep watching them."

Several British police officers are based in this area semi-permanently. But it is not an easy community to police. The registered, permanent population of Britons in Spain grew to 274,00 last year. Authorities think up to three times as many spend part of the year in Spain. Some estimates talk of 300,000 Britons living for parts of the year on the Costa del Sol alone. Millions of tourists add further cover.

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