Relying on a formula that has become an entertainment industry darling, Netflix has once again produced a series featuring a group of men who strike it rich by trafficking cocaine — this time in Spain. The smugglers lives — from hardscrabble beginnings — parallel those of traffickers in Central America and other regions, showing that if you’re familiar with the routes, it’s easy to go from fish to fariña.
“Don’t look at me. I can barely read,” said a bearded man dressed in shabby clothes in a court hearing. The man’s name was Laureano Oubiña, and he stood accused of being one of the biggest drug traffickers in Spain’s autonomous region of Galicia.
Manuel Charlín, another trafficker who pled innocent in the same hearing, said: “I’m just a businessman ... I make my living from my sardine canning factory."
These scenes portray a Spanish federal court case in 1990 against several Galician drug traffickers following a police raid called Operation Necora (Operación Nécora, literally “Operation Velvet Crab”). The traffickers were the first to introduce Central American and Colombian cocaine to Spain. Baltazar Garzón was the judge who tried the case. He later issued a warrant for the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The operation and court case figure into the Netflix series Cocaine Coast, or Fariña in the original Spanish version, which was produced in Spain and based on journalist Nacho Carretero’s book by the same name. The book became a bestseller despite being partially banned by a court order.
Like so many others of its kind, the series abounds in the classic myths surrounding drug trafficking, including the figure of the trafficker acting as a Robin Hood-esque public benefactor, or the dichotomy of corrupt versus honorable police officers.
Cocaine Coast, however, fleshes out those myths with painstaking depictions of the experience of declining Spanish coastal life at the time. Smugglers find themselves with few economic opportunities in rugged, distant lands and are inevitably susceptible to further corruption. They see an easy way to make money through illegal markets, going from smuggling cigars and seafood to cocaine, or “fariña,” the drug’s Galician moniker due to its likeness to flour.
At times, it can seem like some characters or scenes are exaggerated, but they are not. Men like Oubiña and Charlín existed. They were shippers, born into remote communities before becoming drug traffickers. They are akin to the drug traffickers who became the everyday picaresque icons of Central America: arrogant, clever and violent, while always seeming to escape their comeuppance.
Having covered the history of drug trafficking in El Salvador and Honduras over the course of this century in my work, I can say definitively that the Central Americans and their Galician counterparts have many aspects in common.
Here are four of them:
1. Remote and Isolated Geography
Difficult geography lends itself to the transformation from shipper to drug trafficker.
El Salvador has the Perrones cartel, which operates in the country’s east, near the mangrove-laden Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific Ocean. In Honduras, the mountains of the Yoro and Olancho departments, which descend to the Atlantic, play host to the Cachiros.
An apt counterpart for such lawless territories in Galicia would be the Ría de Arousa, with its many peninsulas and islands, where a little money goes a long way in corrupting border guards.
Charlín, Oubiña and their boss, Sito Miñanco, got their start in tobacco smuggling. In Central America, the Perrones cartel’s Jose Natividad Luna Pereira, alias “Chepe Luna,” and Reynerio Flores Lazo smuggled cattle and dairy products from Nicaragua to El Salvador before expanding into drugs. What unites them is the unforgiving terrain that allowed them to establish themselves. Luna and Flores were smuggling kings ruling over dusty routes that no one knew like they did.
2. Corrupt Guards
Perhaps the ultimate ubiquitous characteristic of drug smuggling — be it in Central America, Galicia, Mexico or Afghanistan — is the extent to which it depends on corrupt government authorities to function. Law enforcement, judges, mayors, border control, all employ individuals who have the potential to be bribed into contributing to the passage of cocaine over international borders, whether by turning a blind eye or becoming full-fledged criminals themselves.
In my book Infiltrados on organized crime’s penetration of the Salvadoran police force, I describe how smugglers, such as El Salvador's Perrones and Guatemala's Lorenzanas, went from bribing local police officers in small towns to funding the election campaigns of mayors and presidents.
“We were paying informants in the customs departments, and they told us something big was coming. Reynerio was dealing with more drugs and money. The problem was that the government needed to have something to show. They gave Reynerio a sort of political collection notice. They pressured him into contributing to the [political] campaign, but he refused, so they billed him,” said one of the advisors closest to Reynerio, the boss of the boss of the Perrones.
3. Culture of Flamboyance and Boastfulness
One of the surest signs of just how far some drug smugglers get without being brought to justice is how much wealth they amass — and how they spend it. Cocaine Coast takes pains to recreate designer 1980s decorations and fashion, capturing the luxurious lifestyles the Galician drug traffickers eventually maintained. Granted, they were not as extravagant as Pablo Escobar with his zoos, but many did not shy away from spending their money on luxury vehicles, gold chains and above all property.
When the Galicians went to court in 1990, they had a strategy to downplay their wealth: dress poor, the idea being to sell the judge that they were honest, struggling businessmen, starting from nothing. The reality was they were swimming in money.
4. The Never-Ending Market
“It will never end. As long as a gringo is involved, it won’t end,” said a fictionalized Pablo Escobar in another series, El Patrón del Mal, to one of his henchmen after the police seized a shipment of his drugs.
Oubiña — the Galician drug trafficker whom the Cocaine Coast character is based on — said something similar in an interview with a Spanish television station when he was released from prison after serving a 22-year sentence for drug trafficking: “No one has a gun to his head to get involved with drugs.”