Authorities in Madrid have dismantled part of a sophisticated network dedicated to contract killings and transnational money laundering, highlighting the autonomous community’s role as a power base for criminal groups with clear ties to Latin America and the Caribbean.
On January 21, the Spanish Civil Guard announced authorities in Madrid had disbanded a criminal organization dedicated to drug money laundering, debt collection and contract killings, following a two year investigation in collaboration with the DEA and Europol.
A string of raids across the autonomous community culminated in four arrests, along with the indictment of seven other individuals and one legal entity. During the operation, Colombian, Venezuelan and Spanish nationals were detained.
According to officials, members of the group had been overseeing a “collection office,” counting on a nationwide network of hitmen to collect fees from drug trafficking organizations operating around Spain. The office allegedly sent large amounts of cash to “prominent drug cartels” in Colombia and Peru.
El País revealed how the group had been operating through a company that was supposedly dedicated to the sale of real estate and luxury vehicles. Members allegedly simulated commercial operations with companies based in Latin America and worked through channels migrants typically use to send remittances home, to launder proceeds derived from the drug trade.
Authorities claimed the group’s operations were facilitated by the prominent status its members held in the underworld.
According to media outlets, one of those arrested was alias ‘El Cucho’ -- a respected member of the group’s leadership with a history of criminal activity in Colombia -- who had been seemingly living a life of luxury in Spain, while overseeing the collection office’s operations.
Early last year, the Spanish Civil Guard detailed how authorities in Madrid and Valencia had helped to break up a network dedicated to international drug trafficking and money laundering. Former leaders of Colombian drug cartels reportedly formed part of the organization, which had a branch specializing in sending drug money to Colombia and Mexico. It was revealed authorities had targeted three properties in the Madrid region that the group had been using to store and process drugs.
InSight Crime Analysis
The high-profile interception has reinforced the extent to which transnational criminal actors working between Latin America and Europe have been relying on Madrid as a base through which to facilitate their illicit activities.
Transnational criminal groups have been effectively using Madrid as a hub to store drugs that have crossed the Atlantic, to be sold in Europe. The same organizations have also been overseeing money-laundering operations from the region, sending money collected from drug traffickers in Spain to cartels based in Latin America.
Criminal groups rooted in Colombia share a historic connection with Madrid.
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Nearly four decades ago, a founding member of the Medellín Cartel, Jorge Luís Ochoa and former leader of the Cali Cartel, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, were both arrested in Madrid. The pair had been attempting to launder their illicit earnings through real estate companies in Spain, according to El País.
Ochoa had been collaborating with Spanish cocaine kingpin, José Ramón Prado Bugallo, alias "Sito Miñanco," effectively solidifying an alliance between criminal actors in Spain and Colombia.
Such ties live on today. El Cucho’s collection office reportedly maintained links to Colombia’s Urabeños, a group that emerged from the nation’s paramilitary movement to become a dominant criminal force.
Tempted by direct flights from Medellín to Madrid, a common language, and a 2015 visa exemption for Colombians wishing to travel to Schengen nations for up to 90 days, illicit actors from Colombia have used Madrid as an operational base – and a safe haven, in some cases.
In 2017, InSight Crime reported on how Spain’s National Police had captured 24 members of a Colombian drug trafficking group that had been seeking to establish a new maritime route into the nation, after authorities identified a known drug trafficker who was attempting to open a permanent office in Madrid.
Since then, Spain’s role as an entry point for cocaine into Europe has continued to attract drug traffickers. In 2019, the legend of Colombia’s narco-submarines reaching the continent became a reality, as one was seized in Spain.
Madrid has also been used as a safe haven for ‘Invisibles’ from Colombia’s underworld who want to remain in the shadows. Last year, InSight Crime revealed how paramilitary drug lord Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, alias ‘Memo Fantasma’, had been living the high life in Madrid, free and clear.
But the autonomous community’s connection to organized crime stemming from across the Atlantic runs far beyond Colombia.
In 2018, the leader of a transnational drug trafficking organization that worked to ship cocaine from Brazil and Colombia to Spain and Italy was detained in Madrid after Brazilian authorities sent out an international arrest warrant. The kingpin had worked his way into the upper echelons of Madrid’s high society, posing as an arts and culture entrepreneur to generate contacts.
And an accountant of Mexico’s Zetas, Juan Manuel Muñoz Luévano, alias ‘El Mono’, lived in the neighborhoods of Las Tablas and La Moraleja, where he coordinated the transfer of cocaine from Spain to the rest of Europe ahead of his arrest, according to ABC.
Otherwise, the autonomous community has been a stronghold for local gangs of Latin American origin, including the Trinitarios and Dominicans Don't Play (DDP) of the Dominican Republic, as well as the Ñetas and Latin Kings, which were originally rooted in Ecuador.
At the end of 2019, El Mundo shared how violent acts committed by such gangs had escalated across Madrid.