On April 30, 1984, the Mercedes taking Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla home after work was strafed with machine gun fire by the feared hitmen or “sicarios” of drug lord Pablo Escobar. The Medellín Cartel had declared war on the state. And that war was to set in motion a strange series of events that would kickstart the European cocaine trade.
The killing of Lara Bonilla – one of the few politicians to defy the power of the Medellín and Cali cartels in the early 1980s – sparked a backlash from the previously cowed Colombian state. It immediately signed into law the drug lords’ worst fear – extradition to the United States.
Fear of capture and extradition drove an exodus of top drug traffickers to more friendly climes. Pablo Escobar fled to Panama, protected by his friend, the dictator General Manuel Noriega. Others, like Medellín Cartel capo Jorge Ochoa Vázquez and Cali Cartel head Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, chose Spain.
They lived in luxurious obscurity under false names, collecting opulent properties and high-end vehicles in Madrid, according to media reports at the time. But then in November 1984, they were both arrested and sent to the infamous Carabanchel prison.
The two top Colombian traffickers, who would go on to become deadly rivals, shared the prison not only with each other but also with Spain’s top contraband traffickers from the region of Galicia, among them the legendary smuggler José Ramón Prado, better known by his alias, “Sito Miñanco.”
The Galicians, the Colombians quickly realized, were exactly what they needed to expand their business into Europe. These smugglers could provide the vehicles and boats to safely bring in anything along the long, rocky coasts of Galicia. They could also offer the Colombians one of the most coveted criminal advantages: corruption networks that penetrated deep into local elites.
The time they shared in prison gave birth to a criminal alliance that became central to large scale cocaine trafficking to Europe. It also set Spain on the path to becoming the main European entry point for Colombian cocaine and the European operations base of Latin American organized crime.
Birth of the European Cocaine Trade and the Move Downstream
In contrast to the United States, where the crack explosion had democratized cocaine use and around six percent of the population reported regular use of the drug, the European cocaine market in the early 1980s was small, according to the US-based National Research Council Committee on Substance Abuse Prevention Research. But in this small market – and its higher prices – the Colombians saw enormous potential for growth.
Furthermore, in the 1980s, the United States was beginning to ramp up its “war on drugs” by strengthening agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), developing tools such as extradition, and increasing its upstream presence. The Europeans were taking no such action.
With the conditions ripe for the Colombians to exploit, the Galicians offered a secure pipeline into the heart of Europe.
Galicia, with its 1,500 kilometers of coastline crammed in between Portugal and France, has been a smugglers’ paradise for centuries. In Fariña, his book on the birth of the cocaine trade in Spain, journalist Nacho Carretero described how smuggling was not even a criminal offense until 1982, and how even after this date, it was a socially accepted profession. In the 1960s, cigarette smuggling became Galicia’s biggest illicit market, and by the 1980s it was a multimillion-dollar business that corrupted customs and police officers as well as local politicians.
Fariña documents how the first contacts between the Galician smugglers and Colombian cocaine traffickers were made in Panama, where the Galicians would go to launder their tobacco smuggling profits. Together they organized some test shipments. But it was when Ochoa and Rodriguez Orejuela met the Galicians in Carabanchel prison that the arrangements for large-scale cocaine smuggling to Spain took shape.
To bring in the drugs, Galician fishing vessels would sail to Colombia and back, dropping off the cocaine at high sea on their return, according to Carretero. From there, go-fast boats and other small vessels would bring it to land.
Both parties would keep one member of the other group hostage until the drugs were handed back to the Colombians, who then took care of wholesale distribution to European criminal groups, including Italian mafia organizations like the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta. For their part, the Galicians earned 30 percent of the profits, according to Carretero.
The impact of the new nexus forming between the Colombians, Galicians and Italians soon became apparent. Data compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggests a gradual but steady increase in the size of the European market throughout the 1990s, as seizures climbed while prices fell.
But Galicia was just the beginning.
New routes began opening all around Spain. By the mid-2000s, the country was recording the third-highest cocaine seizures in the world, according to the UNODC. And the seizures were increasingly made outside of Galicia, including in Andalusia, Valencia and Barcelona, as traffickers began to use other modus operandi, especially shipping containers.
The Colombians’ growing European wholesale business, meanwhile, required them to set up operations on the continent. Spain, with its shared language and commercial and cultural ties, was their natural home. And as the European market grew in importance to the Colombians, so did the Colombians’ presence in Spain.
By the 2000s, authorities became aware that this included not only trafficking networks but also oficinas de cobro – or collection offices – the name given to Colombian criminal structures dedicated to providing services to drug traffickers, above all debt collection and assassinations.
One of the most notorious Colombian oficinas to operate in Spain was known as the “Señores de Ácido” (Lords of Acid), which was based in Madrid. Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported how the Colombians set up the network in an effort to export to Spain the organized crime model of the Oficina de Envigado, the original Colombian oficina, which was created to collect debts for Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel.
The Señores de Ácido were directed from Colombia by Luis Dávalos Jiménez, alias “Pampo,” a member of the Norte del Valle Cartel (NDVC) leadership. The oficina’s contract killers were involved in kidnapping, murders, debt collection, and extortion. The group earned its name after dissolving in acid the headless corpse of a relative of a drug trafficker with an outstanding debt.
But it was not just the foot soldiers of cocaine trafficking that set up shop in Spain.
In 2006, one of Colombia’s most-wanted traffickers, Leonidas Vargas, was arrested in Madrid. In 2009, Vargas was freed on conditional bail due to health reasons, but he was then assassinated in his hospital bed as the Colombian cartel battles played out on Spanish soil.
Since then, high-profile traffickers from some of Colombia’s notorious cocaine trafficking networks, such as the Urabeños and the Oficina de Envigado, have also been captured in Spain, in one case reportedly while living in the same gated community as Real Madrid soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres.
Spain in the New Cocaine Era
In 2019, the Spanish police stumbled upon their own white whale, which they had pursued without success for over a decade – a drug-filled semi-submersible that had crossed the Atlantic.
The vessel had carried three tons of cocaine over 9,000 kilometers along the Amazon river and across the ocean, but the crew were forced to abandon it off the coast of Galicia after suffering mechanical problems, according to an investigation by Spain’s El País.
Spanish police sources told InSight Crime that Latin American traffickers have used semi-submersibles to move cocaine into Spain since the mid-2000s. Colombian drug lord Diego Pérez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” of the Rastrojos, was a pioneer, often operating out of Venezuela, where he was finally captured in 2012.
The discovery of the semi-submersible, though, offered a glimpse into a new generation of low-profile Galician traffickers that now dominate the business.
“The Spanish groups working with semi-submersibles are investing in these operations,” Chief Commissioner Antonio Martínez Duarte, head of the Spanish police’s Central Anti-narcotics Brigade (Brigada Central de Estupefacientes), told InSight Crime.
The old guard of Galicians is still active in the cocaine trade. A network of over 30 Galicians, allegedly led by Sito Miñanco, was dismantled in 2018 in the largest police operation against drug trafficking in Galicia since 1990. The crime group was linked to a four-ton shipment aboard a tugboat seized in international waters and a 616-kilogram seizure made in a container found in Hoorn, the Netherlands, both in 2017.
However, the main players in today’s Spanish cocaine trade do not seek the legendary status of their predecessors, instead preferring the protection of anonymity and a low-profile life among local elites.
“[These traffickers] are part of high society and live a normal life. Some of them send their kids to the same schools as the judges here,” Víctor Méndez, author of Narcogallegos, a book on the Spanish drug trade, told InSight Crime.
“Their lives are not super luxurious, but they have a lot of money without drawing attention to themselves, without the fancy cars,” he added.
Colombian traffickers too remain deeply embedded in the Spanish cocaine trade, hiding among a diaspora that has grown from around 10,000 in 1998 to 270,000 today. The ongoing importance of Spain to their operations is reflected in the figures – 85 percent of Colombians convicted of drug trafficking in Europe are incarcerated in Spain, according to the Colombian Bureau of Statistics.
Madrid is regarded as a principal operating base, Chief Inspector Emilio Rodríguez, of the Spanish police’s Specialist Response against Organized Crime Group (Grupo de Respuesta Especializada contra el Crimen Organizado – GRECO), told InSight Crime. The capital’s luxury hotels are used to meet associates, while reception points along the coast are easy to reach from the city.
All major Colombian drug traffickers working in Europe use Spain, according to Chief Inspector Rodríguez. Many have established cells in the country, although higher ups in the organizations only ever come to oversee the final stages of trafficking deals.
“There are permanent, low-level representatives in the country, but if we arrest a big guy from one of these groups, it is always during the last phase of a [drug trafficking] operation,” he said.
The Colombians commonly dispatch shipments with multiple owners, the police chief added. Part of the load belongs to them, and they will sell it on the wholesale market. The rest belongs to other traffickers from both Europe and Latin America who pay the Colombians to source and move their cocaine.
Colombian oficinas de cobro also continue to operate, policing and protecting traffickers’ interests. While some are allied with specific groups, they often work as hired guns for the highest bidders.
While numerous Colombian criminal organizations use Spain, one group more than any other has caught the attention of Spanish police.
“We have all types of Colombian groups [in Madrid], but lately, we see a lot of members from the Urabeños,” said Chief Commissioner Martínez.
The Urabeños sell cocaine wholesale, offer logistical services to independent traffickers, and use Spain for money laundering operations.
Today’s cocaine routes are no longer concentrated in Galicia, but pass through Spain’s coasts, islands, ports, and airports all around the country.
Most seizures are made on vessels or in container ports like Algeciras, Barcelona and Valencia, where an estimated 40 to 50 percent of all cocaine in Spain arrives. And the loads are getting bigger, as shown by the nearly nine-ton haul seized in Algeciras in 2018 – a Spanish record.
Furthermore, other routes have opened up, such as using the hashish trafficking lines that run from Morocco to the beaches along the Costa del Sol.
“The complete infrastructure, go-fasts and other boats, for hashish is used to transport the cocaine that enters via Africa,” said Chief Inspector Rodríguez.
However, Spain has now been displaced as Europe’s top cocaine entry point by Belgium and its port at Antwerp – a reflection of the critical role of container shipping in trafficking today.
And although year after year it has ranked in the top three European nations for seizures, recently there has been a sharp drop off: from a high of 50 tons in 2018 to just 21 tons in the first 10 months of 2019.
Police believe this is a sign that, while Spain’s strategic importance continues, its importance as a trafficking route is declining.
“Colombian organizations use Spain as a meeting point with organizations from Serbia, eastern Europe, [and] Africa, but it is no longer the principal arrival point for drugs,” said Chief Commissioner Martínez.
Such international traffickers, along with other organized crime networks from the Balkans, the British Isles, the Netherlands and elsewhere, also now run their own networks in Spain. And while they may continue to work with the Colombians and the Galicians downstream in Spain, ever more of these groups are also working upstream in Latin America, following the trail cut by the Colombians’ other main partners from the cartel era – the Italian mafia.
*Investigation for this article was conducted by James Bargent, Maria Fernanda Ramírez and Owen Boed.