‘A united nations of crime’: how Marbella became a magnet for gangsters
The new international crime organisations have made Marbella their centre of operations. And as violence rises, the police lag far behind
Thu 20 May 2021 06.00 BST
One morning last autumn, a dozen or so locals were eating breakfast at a cafe under a clear Marbella sky, in front of the offices of the Special Organised CrimeResponse Unit (Greco), on the Costa del Sol. The property is nondescript – an unobtrusive building in a working-class neighbourhood – and only someone with a sharp eye for detail might notice the two security cameras monitoring the front entrance. The cafe’s regulars drank coffee and ate toast, unaware that only 24 hours earlier, in another part of the city, Greco agents had rescued a man from a garage, alive, but with holes drilled through his toes. It was the latest local case of amarre, or kidnapping, to settle a score between criminal gangs.
That afternoon, in Puerto Banús, the wealthiest and most extravagant area of the city, a young British man with ties to organised crime walked out of a Louis Vuitton store and found himself surrounded by a crew of young Maghrebis, “soldiers” from one of the Marseille clans. “They didn’t want anything specific,” he said. “They just stared me down and said: ‘What’s up?’ They were looking for trouble. Things like this have been happening for a while now. It’s getting really dangerous here,” he said, with no apparent sense of the irony of a criminal complaining about criminality.
On the same day, in New Andalucía, one of the luxury housing developments on the outskirts of the city, next to the scorched shell of the Sisú Hotel, which was set on fire in what seemed to be a settling of scores, a Rolls-Royce sped through an intersection and smashed into an oncoming car. The driver, a young man in a tracksuit and tattoos, got out and inspected the damage, clutching three mobile phones and glaring defiantly at passersby.
It was in the 60s, during Spain’s economic “miracle” and development boom, that the Costa del Sol was transformed into the tourist hotspot of southern Europe. First, working-class holidaymakers thronged the public beaches. Then an emerging class of jet-setters found their piece of paradise in Marbella. The plan to develop the region succeeded, but success came with its own baggage. “This was the Francoist agreement,” said Antonio Romero, an author and former politician who is one of the most outspoken voices against organised crime in the region. “You, the criminals, come here to relax, don’t commit any crimes, and bring your money.” And so, as the authorities turned a blind eye, Marbella became a premier destination for the global criminal elite.
The Costa del Sol is organised crime’s southern frontier – a stretch of urban sprawl extending from Málaga to Estepona, with Marbella, a city of 147,633 people, as its capital. According to the Spanish Intelligence Centre for Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime, there are at least 113 criminal groups representing 59 different nationalities operating out of the area.
There is nowhere quite like the Costa del Sol – a long tongue of land stretching 55 miles between the mountains and the sea. To the south, less than 10 miles of open water separates the region from Morocco – the world’s largest producer of hashish – and from the autonomous Spanish outposts of Ceuta and Melilla. Less than an hour’s drive away is one of Europe’s main entry points for cocaine, the port of Algeciras. Across the bay from Algeciras is the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, a tax haven separated from Spain by a fence. To the north rise the Málaga and Granada mountains, Europe’s main region for marijuana cultivation.
“The Costa del Sol is a kind of hub, or ‘coworking’ space, where almost every major criminal group in the world has some sort of presence,” a senior National police agent investigating organised crime told us. “It’s a UN of criminals for a globalised world. Marbella is a tourist brand, but it’s also a criminal brand.” Marcos Frías, chief of the Central Organised Crime Brigade, said: “If a crime boss from Liverpool wants to traffic drugs on a large scale, he knows he has to make an appearance in Marbella. He doesn’t have a choice.”
The other side sees it the same way. “There are groups from all over the world here,” said a member of the Camorra, the Naples mafia organisation, who has lived in Marbella for years. “People of all different nationalities, doing all kinds of different jobs. We don’t intermix, but we’re constantly collaborating.”
The mobsters blend in with their millionaire neighbours. Marbella is not so much a rich place as a place full of rich people. A quick search yields 3,974 results for homes listed at more than €1m – that’s 100 more listings than the entire city of Madrid – in a city where the per capita income (€21,818) is less than the Spanish average. The homes of the mafiosi are next to the homes of other millionaires who may have no connections to organised crime. Their cars are parked next to the cars of regular businessmen; their yachts dock in the same marinas, they eat at the same restaurants. “Organised crime, in large part, is invisible,” said Ricardo Álvarez-Ossorio, a lawyer who has represented several members of Costa del Sol’s criminal community. “They’re rich, they live well, they spend money … Organised crime has nourished and sustained Marbella. That and the sheikhs. And everyone has been fine with it.”
In recent years, the situation has deteriorated. Bosses have started bringing their “soldiers” with them, who strut along the streets of Puerto Banús or New Andalucía. “Young gangsters, armed and really dangerous,” said one member of Greco Costa del Sol. And it’s not just the police who are complaining. The Naples mafioso who has lived in Marbella for years feels the same way: “The young guys who are coming here now don’t live by any codes, they don’t have any respect.”
The mafioso, who did not want to give his name (we have called him Francesco), had agreed to meet at a restaurant in Puerto Banús, where he always has a table waiting for him. Drinking cup after cup of coffee, he said this new culture of delinquency is ruining the Costa del Sol: “What’s changed about Marbella is that now the lower criminal class is here. All these guys running around with their little bum bags, while their bosses are in Dubai.”
There is no question that the landscape in Marbella has changed, and that the arrival of this new community of criminals is at the root of the transformation. “Here, you’ll be eating at a nice restaurant, then turn to the table next to you and there’s an Albanian with a star tattoo, then at the other table, there’s a thug from the Irish mafia,” said an agent from Greco. “The other day I was standing in line at the grocery store, and the kid in front of me turned around and he had a Kalashnikov tattooed on his forehead. It didn’t used to be like that here.”
The most immediate sign of this change is a rise in violent clashes between gangs: “The violence is gratuitous. In the past, criminal groups negotiated, they talked to each other,” said Antonio Rodríguez Puerta, chief of the Udyco Costa del Sol (the National police’s drug and organised crime unit). “They’d lose some of their supply, or one of their shipments, and they’d come to an agreement. Now we’re seeing that if something like that happens, in the majority of cases, they just go straight to killing.” The rise in lethal violence is worrying the region’s security forces. “We know that at any point, they could start attacking us, start shooting at us or settling scores against agents,” a member of Greco said.
The arrival of the gangs and their “soldiers” on the shores of the Costa del Sol has made an impact in other ways. “For the first time, the wealthy, the upper-class elites, they’re leaving Marbella because they’re afraid,” said the lawyer Ricardo Álvarez-Ossorio. Last August was an especially bad month: “Eastern European gangs were breaking into homes all the time,” Álvarez-Ossorio said. “There were robberies and assaults happening constantly. We call it ‘black August’, and I think it was really a turning point.”
A resident of an upmarket suburb in Marbella, who asked not to be identified by name, said she’s afraid to leave anything of value in her home. “I wear a lot of bracelets,” the woman said, showing off each one and noting its value, each in the tens of thousands of euros. “And when I go running, I cover them up with a wrist band. I don’t leave them in the house.” Asked if she ever thinks about moving, she said: “Yes. In fact, I’m sure that’s what I’ll end up doing.”
The pandemic sped up Marbella’s transformation. Last year’s border closures left gang members trapped and their merchandise stranded. Streets that were normally crowded with tourists thronging to the city’s restaurants, clubs and beach bars looked deserted. “It’s empty here, there’s no movement,” a Colombian drug trafficker living in Marbella told us, sitting on the terrace at a local hamburger joint. “The border closures have caused exports [from South America] to drop. Here’s an example: cocaine that leaves Brazil or Uruguay comes hidden in leather from Paraguay. And if there’s no demand for leather, there’s no way to get the cocaine out.”
A steep drop in supply last year pushed cocaine prices over €33,000 per kg. It also caused a swarm of activity, as everyone scrambled to find alternative ways to get the drugs in. “After Christmas, everything changed,” said the Colombian trafficker. “Everything that’s been accumulating has started to get out, and now the market’s flooded. The price of cocaine has gone down to €27,000. That’s 25% cheaper than it was a few months ago.”
“It’s not that Marbella is especially violent,” said one police officer stationed in the city, “but it’s very unpredictable. Patrol agents never go out without wearing bulletproof vests. Just throwing it in the trunk isn’t an option any more.” Marbella relies on a police precinct with far fewer resources than that of any of Spain’s provincial capitals, despite much higher crime rates than most other cities. The Marbella police station receives about 150 calls a day, and handles about 32,000 cases a year – numbers typical of cities two or three times bigger.
Lack of resources and personnel was the common complaint made by police officers interviewed for this article. “We only have four patrol cars,” said one officer stationed in Marbella, “and when [former prime ministers José María] Aznar and Felipe González come for the summer, we have to assign them two officers for their security. We don’t have enough bulletproof jackets. And there are lots of gunfights. We should get the same extra security designation the Basque country gets.” The police predicament was not lost on the Naples mafioso: “We’re way ahead of the police, we’re not that worried about them. We have better resources, better technology.”
“The reality is that we are always one step behind. So we try to make each step count,” said the Udyco chief Rodríguez Puerta. A Greco agent was even more blunt: “We have nothing. The bad guys are miles ahead, and we’re bound by all kinds of legal red tape. Every month we have to justify wiretaps, stops, surveillance. You ask a judge for 20 wiretaps and the whole court system collapses. Sometimes, it feels like all we have is a chihuahua, but what we need is a pitbull. In Spain, the crime bosses are totally at ease, living the good life.”
The increasing violence on the Costa del Sol has received little media attention beyond the local press. “A few months ago, a Polish man turned up with gunshot wounds in both legs,” said one officer. “He had been shot by a group of Swedes. He didn’t file a complaint and didn’t want to testify.” Another case involved an Irish citizen who had been shot in the face in New Andalucía. “He didn’t want to be involved in the investigation. There are a lot of beatings and kidnappings. They happen in the suburbs, in the tourist areas, but they don’t usually make the news because no one files a complaint or even talks to the police.”
“You can’t report everything to the press, or it would create panic,” admitted an agent with Greco Costa del Sol. “The majority of residents are unaware of the situation here, they don’t have the slightest idea about what’s going on around them, let alone the rest of the Spanish population. And maybe that’s how it should be.”
Pablo – who did not want to give his real name – opened his black Calvin Klein bum bag, spilling mobile phones of various colours and sizes across the restaurant table: two big ones that looked like smartphones and two little ones, basic, antique-looking. He arranged them in a row, and started to talk. For years, Pablo, originally from Colombia, has been moving 50kg of cocaine a week to markets in Spain, and now he is climbing the ranks, thanks to his contacts on the other side of the Atlantic, who are helping him bring in merchandise directly from the source. Within the Marbella ecosystem, he’s a mid-level trafficker with certain typical characteristics: an ostentatious sports car for driving around Puerto Banús, shirts featuring brand names such as Valentino, Dsquared2, Kenzo and Dolce & Gabbana, fancy sunglasses, hair in a side-parting with the sides shaved, a well-trimmed beard, a tracksuit, white sneakers and, of course, a batch of mobile phones.
The phones are by far his most important possessions: they allow him to communicate with suppliers, buyers and people working for him, under the noses of the police, thanks to encrypted messaging technology. In the eyes of the Costa del Sol’s criminal underworld, if you don’t have multiple mobile phones, you’re nobody. And when you sit down at a restaurant or bar, convention dictates that you lay them all out on the table – a warning sign for all to see.
Tina, a young Colombian attracted by the Costa’s atmosphere of wealth, first came to Puerto Banús a few years ago, and used to manage public relations for some of the best clubs in Marbella, where narco extravagance is the name of the game. You have to see it to believe it, she said one morning sitting at a cafe, sipping fruit juice and dressed for the gym. “In the clubs frequented by los malos (the bad guys), a table reservation costs €5,000, drinks included,” she said. “What they do is they’ll order €1,500 euro bottles of champagne or bottles of vodka or tequila, until they reach their table limit. But they always go over and end up spending more.
“Last summer, since there were hardly any tourists, the clubs were just full of those mafia guys who already live here and who go out partying every night. Their presence was a lot more noticeable. They’re not classy people. The scariest and most violent are the English. And no one stops them because everyone’s afraid. They wear trashy clothes and don’t look like who they actually are – people who have everything: money, muscle, power,” Tina says.
Valets park the fanciest and flashiest cars near the front entrance – they are good promotion. Door security enforces a strict dress code, even a body code. “Fat people aren’t allowed in,” Tina said seriously. In the VIP areas, guests spend thousands of euros in a single night, and no one seems to care who they are or where they’re from. “There aren’t any door searches. People bring in guns, for sure,” she said. It’s a similar situation with drugs. “There’s zero tolerance for selling, but consumption isn’t really that restricted.” And prostitution? “In the upscale nightclubs, it’s absolutely essential. The clubs are full of rich men looking to get laid, and if there aren’t any pretty girls, they leave,” Tina says. But she also said that without all this, “Marbella wouldn’t exist. It would be like Torremolinos or Benalmádena: normal middle-class tourism, tourism for wage workers.”
The pandemic changed all this, said Pablo, the Colombian drug trafficker. With the restrictions and closures, he said that private parties in villas and chalets have taken the place of nightclubs. “When a group does a job and it goes well, they want to celebrate and they want alcohol, drugs and women. And if there aren’t any nightclubs, they do it at the villas.” Hosts hire top DJs for rates that can exceed €100,000, and commission Michelin-Star chefs. Last March, a DJ died at a private party in Marbella after he was shot by a stray bullet during an argument. When police arrived, the mansion was totally empty except for the body of the victim.
“But all of this is just a phase,” said Pablo. “The ultimate goal is to not be such a showoff, to make a nice life with a family, to live like the big bosses, where no one has any idea what you do. All that stuff about ‘plata o plomo’ [‘silver or lead’ – take a bribe or take a bullet], that’s just from the movies. That’s really whose fault it is: all the TV shows and movies that lure young people to this world, thinking they’re going to get rich.”
The Costa del Sol is home to more than 100 different criminal organisations. They range from extremely powerful, tightly structured mafias, like the Serbian, Morrocan and Dutch groups, to gangs of small-time burglars. Most groups specialise in one or more of the various activities that revolve around trafficking drugs: buying merchandise, protection and security, transportation, distribution, money laundering. Almost none of these groups can manage the whole process by themselves, which makes collaboration essential.
A prosecutor in the region put it like this: “Anyone who thinks that the criminal organisations are the same as they were before – structured like a pyramid, managing every aspect of the business – well, they’re wrong. It’s not like that any more. It’s a lot more like in the TV series ZeroZeroZero, where everyone has to form alliances and each group takes on certain things. They’re not cartels, they’re service providers: it’s the Uberisation of organised crime.” Because of this, there’s also no division of territory. “It’s not possible to make a map, like they’ve done, for example, with Mexico,” he says. “Instead, you’d have to make a diagram that reflects the division of labour, the different roles and activities of each organisation.”
The groups make alliances based on country of origin. Lower down the hierarchy are the smaller criminal gangs who often act as subcontractors. Marcos Frías, chief of the Central Organised Crime Brigade, explained: “There are lots of groups who offer subsidiary services: procuring a gun or a car, having someone who knows how to drive 150mph, or who you can hire to beat someone up … ” Many of these gangs concentrate on activities like stealing watches and cars, or robbing homes. And some of them, like the youth gangs from Naples or Marseille, or the gangs from Romania or Bulgaria, travel to Marbella for a few months of the year to work the season, then return home.
The groups in Costa del Sol, said one Marbella-based drug trafficker, “are talking with each other all day long, asking each other questions”. Everyone knows everything, he said, “and almost everyone knows each other”. Meetings take place in discreet locations: shopping centres, fast-food restaurants or parks, or during a stroll through a public garden in a luxury development.
While there might not be any clearly marked territories on the Costa del Sol, each group has its own stomping grounds – the businesses and other locations they frequent and control. And it’s important, the trafficker said, sipping his drink, that everyone knows the rules. “If a Brit walks into an Albanian gym, for example, he’s gonna have a problem.” The Irish have their own pubs in Puerto Banús; the Moroccans have their own bars, where there’s no (public) alcohol consumption but they smoke shisha; the Colombians hang out at the shopping centres; the Camorra have their pizzerias, and there are specific hotels for English gangsters. The police know a lot of these places by name.
Beyond its own frontiers, Marbella is inextricably linked to Dubai by crime. Most of the area’s criminal groups live between these two cities. “Dubai is like Marbella but with no rules and no law,” said one high-level Costa del Sol criminal. “It’s extremely rare for them to arrest anyone there. It’s only happened a few times, and always for some underlying political reason. Most of the top bosses live there, and then they spend the summer in Marbella. The soldados go to Dubai when they feel like they’re under surveillance. We’re protected there. There’s no extradition.”
They call it a “cold wallet”. At first glance, it looks like a normal USB flash drive, but in reality it’s a device that can hold millions of euros in cryptocurrency. A cold wallet is an essential tool for anyone who wants to store large quantities of illicit money in a discreet place. It’s “cold” because it isn’t connected to any networks, so it can’t be hacked or traced. Cold wallets are the latest trend in money laundering, an essential tool for criminal organisations who wish to convert illegal earnings into legal wealth. “If you have a room full of cash it’s not worth anything – you’re poor. You have to transform the cash to be able to use it,” said an investigator with the Guardia Civil.
In addition to cryptocurrency, there’s the longstanding tradition of laundering money through real estate. A lot of the mansions on the Costa del Sol have companies with ties to organised crime behind them, a regional expert on money laundering with the Guardia Civil told me matter-of-factly. The tactic that gives security forces the biggest headache is false invoicing and fraudulent accounting. A criminal organisation signs an investment contract with a development or real estate company that it controls in some opaque way. The contract includes a clause stipulating that if payments cease, the contract is terminated. Over time, the organisation stops issuing invoices and the contract is rescinded. This is where police often lose the trail, because everything paid up to that point gets registered as profit and the money becomes clean.
A police officer in Marbella told us that “your typical narco launders money by selling cars”. But this approach comes with its own obstacles: in Spain, you can’t make cash purchases over €2,500. In Germany you can, up to €50,000, and with fewer constraints if the purchase is made by a business. So a criminal living in Marbella sets up a company in Germany. That company buys cars from an official dealer in Germany and pays in cash. The company then ships the cars to Spain, where a partner based in Costa del Sol buys them. Mission accomplished: the seller keeps their commission, and the rest of the money, now clean and legal, gets sent back to Germany.
“We have agencies tasked with detecting money-laundering operations,” the Guardia Civil agent said. “But it’s impossible to stop all of it”.
Drug trafficking is the Costa del Sol’s core criminal enterprise – the nucleus around which all other activities revolve, and the area’s main source of income. “Drug trafficking is a global phenomenon, but Marbella is the capital,” said an agent from Greco Cádiz. The global trafficking networks connecting Colombia, the Netherlands, Italy and Dubai sooner or later all converge in Marbella. The Netherlands even has a special prosecutor based in Spain, which gives a sense of the region’s strategic importance.
Hashish is typically smuggled from Morocco in gomas (high-speed motorised rafts) and delivered up and down the coast by Andalucían or Galician traffickers. The organisations behind these operations are based in Marbella. Cocaine is almost always smuggled in shipping containers through the port of Algeciras, while the bosses go about their lives only a few miles away. “The people who fund the operations are on the Costa del Sol. And not just Marbella, but other resorts along the coast. [There are private developments] where a lot of the world’s big bankers and high-level drug traffickers spend the summer,” said an agent with Greco Cádiz.
In Morocco, large organisations oversee the preparation of massive shipments of hashish, often in the thousands of kilos. (In Spain, 1kg currently sells for about €2,500.) “At a certain point,” said Juan, a trafficker from Málaga who did not want to give his real name, “they hand the product over to us, and it’s up to us to get it into Spain. At that point, the merchandise is my responsibility and I’ll die before I let someone take it. When the drugs reach land and are in a secure location, I contact the organisation and, using whatever codes we’ve agreed on, I deliver the drugs to their people and they pay me my cut in cash.”
Groups do this to avoid theft and vuelcos, or ambushes – a drug trafficker’s greatest fear. “A vuelco by another organisation is much more common than a police raid,” Juan said. “As soon as you agree to the job, the most important thing is discretion. The fewer people who know about it, the better. If word starts to spread, you’re fucked, they’re gonna come for you.”
To protect against vuelcos, groups will sometimes hire security, which, on the Costa del Sol, is usually contracted out to the Naples Camorra. “We guarantee the success of the operation, and are paid in advance,” said Francesco, the Camorrista. “Everyone knows that if something happens with the shipment, there will be consequences. If you try something, we’ll kill you. Usually, the shipment has a GPS tracker. If at any point the signal disappears, we kill you,” he said nonchalantly.
Once on land, the drugs are loaded into sports cars stolen by other gangs and transported to the guarderías or warehouses where they’ll sit until ready for delivery. “A lot of [the warehouses] are in Seville,” said Pablo. Other times, the drugs are stored in secret caches in the mountains that surround Málaga, where shepherds are hired to keep watch and to send word if anything goes wrong.
“Deliveries involve a system of prearranged codes,” Pablo said. “For example, the organisation will give you a card with a sequence of numbers that corresponds to another card, which they keep. Before you tell them the location of the product, they have to send you a photo of the code, so you know it’s actually them. Then, when they pick up the product, they have to show it to you again. I carry mine tucked in my cellphone case.”
“Normally we deliver the drugs back to the original owner and then they sell them,” said Juan. “They’ll arrange a meeting with English, French, Italian or Russian buyers, then sell them portions of the shipment. A 1,000kg shipment will go to dozens of buyers. Once it hits land, it should only sit for a week, at most. If it sits any longer, it can be dangerous. Sometimes, the buyers will come and pick it up themselves, but the owners don’t tend to like that because then you might become friends with the buyer and start dealing with them directly. I don’t do that kind of thing, but the French guys do it a lot,” Pablo said. “I don’t want any headaches. Once it’s delivered, we disappear. Then the Moors load it in their Audis and drive like bats out of hell, 150mph non-stop all the way to Paris. You try to stop them.”
Cocaine usually enters in shipping containers exported from Latin America. The containers are almost always owned by food distribution companies. One container, or a portion of a container, will arrive preñado, or pregnant, with drugs. “Once it’s offloaded at the port, and with the help of a worker we have on payroll, they send us the code and we open the container and take the drugs,” Pablo said.
“To smuggle in large quantities, you have to have someone in your pocket,” Pablo added. “The organisations have people in the Guardia Civil, the National police, customs agents and dock workers. There’s a lot more corruption than you’d think.” Another method of importing drugs is to use small boats or other watercraft: speed boats, camouflaged fishing boats, or even submarines.
Faced with such opposition, agents are constantly complaining about the lack of resources in what they say is an unequal fight. “It’s easier to organise a drug-running operation than it is to investigate one,” said one Greco agent. “There should be one agency solely dedicated to tackling drug trafficking, like the DEA [the US Drug Enforcement Agency]. If we’re the main entry point for all of Europe, how is it we don’t have something like that?”
“Whatever they do,” said Francesco, “none of this will ever stop. Drug money is what makes the world go around.”
Translated by Max Granger. A longer version of this article first appeared in El País.