Nacho Carretero and Arturo Lezcano investigate
One morning last autumn, a dozen or so locals were eating breakfast at a café under a clear Marbella sky, in front of the offices of the Special Organised Crime Response Unit (Greco), on the Costa del Sol. It’s 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 café’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… It’s getting really dangerous here,” he said, with no apparent sense of the irony of a criminal complaining about criminality.
It was in the 1960s, during Spain’s development boom, that the Costa del Sol became southern Europe’s tourist hotspot. Working-class holidaymakers thronged the public beaches and an emerging class of jet-setters found a piece of paradise in Marbella. The plan to develop the region succeeded, but success came with baggage. “This was the Francoist agreement,” said Antonio Romero, an author and former politician. “You, the criminals, come here to relax, don’t commit any crimes, and bring your money.”
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. To the south, less than ten 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 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.
Bosses now bring their “soldiers” with them. “Young gangsters, armed and really dangerous”, said a member of Greco Costa del Sol. A member of the Camorra, the Naples Mafia organisation, who has lived in Marbella for years agrees. Francesco, who did not want to give his real name, had agreed to meet at a restaurant in Puerto Banús, where he always has a table waiting.
“The young guys who are coming here now don’t live by any codes, they don’t have any respect… These guys running around with their little bum bags, while their bosses are in Dubai.”