A Mexican drug trafficking ring with connections to the country's cartels operated marijuana plantations and cocaine processing labs in Spain, demonstrating how Mexican crime groups are embedding themselves further in Europe's booming drug trade.
More than 200 officers conducted raids across the central Spanish provinces of Madrid and Guadalajara, ending in the arrest of two dozen people and the seizure of one ton of marijuana and 37 kilograms of cocaine, according to a June 4 news release by Spain's National Police.
A Mexican crime family connected to the country's cartels ran the drug ring after having used $10 million in cash and gold to settle in the Spanish capital of Madrid, according to the police press release. The investigation was launched after various Mexican nationals from the state of Sinaloa began to occupy luxurious homes in 2020.
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Agents, according to police, observed the family members operating large illegal marijuana farms in Guadalajara, where they received visits from drug traffickers. The harvested marijuana was exported to legitimate companies in Portugal and Switzerland, which extracted cannabidiol (CBD) from the marijuana buds for the legal market.
Meanwhile, coca base was smuggled from South America by courier, after which it was processed into cocaine in clandestine laboratories run by the Sinaloa family clan. The cocaine was then sold to Dutch and Croatian traffickers or diverted to a local distribution network that included Chinese nationals.
InSight Crime Analysis
Spain has long been the gateway for the criminal migration of Mexican groups and drug trafficking to Europe, with increasing shipments of methamphetamine and cocaine now crossing the Atlantic due to rising demand. The Madrid-based Mexican ring, though, appeared to be opening new doors in the drug trade.
First, as InSight Crime reported in May 2022, the smuggling of coca base to Europe for local processing is a developing practice, one which primarily remains in Colombian hands. Mexican traffickers are not typically involved in local distribution, either.
Laurent Laniel, head scientific analyst at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), warned about the entrance of Mexican groups into Europe's drug trade in a May 2022 interview with InSight Crime.
“The theoretical situation of Mexican groups establishing themselves in Europe represents a type of threat that could go very badly, potentially leading to a large increase in violence and corruption,” he said.
Second, the participation of Mexican criminals in European marijuana cultivation is novel.
Spain is already one of Europe’s top illegal marijuana producers, and it is also the main transit corridor for globally significant volumes of hashish — high strength marijuana resin — smuggled from Morocco.
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The last case of Mexican nationals and marijuana in Spain involved hashish trafficking from the North African country. In October 2021, Spanish law enforcement dismantled a group that used Mexican pilots to smuggle the drug by helicopter.
The latest case, though, takes on a new dimension in that the Sinaloa family clan was cultivating marijuana to infiltrate Europe’s legal economy by providing the raw material for CBD products, which are currently booming.
In some ways, the move reflects a development not just in Spain but in Mexico’s own marijuana trade. Since 2013, spreading legalization of marijuana across the US has decimated demand for illegal Mexican cannabis, making it “barely profitable,” according to a high-level Sinaloa Cartel operative.
One result has been the small but growing production of marijuana concentrates, like CBD oil, for which Mexican crime groups can find a growing consumer market.